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Aberdeen depot set for a new role in town's history

The Baltimore Sun

With capital amassed for moving costs and initial restoration expenses, land available for relocation and a strong public will, Aberdeen's long-vacant train station might soon be given new life as a tourism center, restaurant or museum.

Designed by renowned architect Frank Furness and built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1885, the depot on West Bel Air Avenue in the city's downtown narrowly escaped the wrecking ball four years ago. Since then, the Historical Society of Harford County has led efforts to raise money and preserve the building.

"This project has been on hold for so many years because the railroad required it to be moved," said Maryanna Skowronski, the society's administrator. "But now they have given us an ideal relocation site with enough land, and the building is still sound enough to withstand the move."

CSX Corp., the B&O;'s successor and the current owner of the station, finalized the land transfer in October and has donated a small parcel of adjoining land to relocate the building, which will be moved about 50 yards.

"If we had had to buy the property, this project would probably have been out of reach," Skowronski said.

The society has about $60,000 in state preservation grants and donations and expects an additional $50,000 grant this year to jump-start the work. The station made the list of Maryland's most endangered sites last year, a designation that shows the urgency and importance of preserving it, Skowronski said.

"It is the only existing example of this type of Furness work," she said. "It is important not only to Harford County but to the entire state."

A research project by a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has further bolstered the cause.

"There is money coming in and people interested," said Cara Manley of Bel Air, who is working on a master's degree in building conservation at RPI. "This is a fantastic station with much historic value. This building can be saved. Its location, almost at the exact center of town, makes it ideal for many uses. You can see it from wherever you walk downtown."

Manley's master's thesis is a study of the building, which she calls Aberdeen's icon. She has discovered station photographs from as early as 1904 and several that show World War II troops boarding the train.

Furness, a Civil War hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, is heralded as the leading American architect of the 19th century. He combined several styles in designing the depot, which was for nearly 75 years a stop on the Royal Blue Line from Philadelphia to Washington. The last passenger trains were discontinued in 1958, but freight trains stopped there for several more years to load produce canned in Aberdeen.

The building, which fell into disrepair and was used as a maintenance shed, often was damaged by the larger trains speeding past it. It was abandoned in the mid-1980s.

The structure's close proximity to the wider trains traveling on tracks that were added over the years demands that it be moved. Several trains have struck the eaves of its roofing.

"The building is no good the way it is now," said City Councilman Ronald Kupferman, who pledged official support for the project. "We need it as a city, county and state, and we should plan for the restoration and move ASAP."

The historical society spent about $10,000 to complete a feasibility study four years ago that concluded the building was structurally sound and able to be moved. Repairs to the roof have minimized further damage to the interior.

"This building still can be stabilized, lifted and moved," said Richard Wagner, an architect with David H. Gleason Associates Inc. who worked on the study.

James T. Wollon, a preservation architect based in Havre de Grace, said train stations across the country have been restored for a variety of uses.

"Anything is possible," he said. "It just takes money and, in this case, a relocation."

In Carroll County, Sykesville and Hampstead have each renovated train stations. Sykesville's depot houses a restaurant and anchors the downtown. Mayor Jonathan S. Herman has called the station the town's calling card.

In Aberdeen, Council President Ruth Elliott is trying to persuade businesses to donate to the restoration effort.

"This is the only piece of property in the city that goes back to our heritage," she said. "I will cry publicly if we lose it."

Aberdeen's downtown claims many historic homes but few buildings that are accessible to the public, Skowronski said.

"There is a lot of history behind this building, which is the only wooden building of Furness' design that is still standing," Skowronski said. "The railroad is vital to the history of Aberdeen and was instrumental in the city's development."

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