The 19th-century Farmlands Carriage House in Catonsville is at the center of a tug-of-war between pressing school needs and the wishes of preservationists.
The solid stone building, one of the oldest in the county, served as a stable for a wealthy maritime merchant during the early 1800s. Today, the Baltimore County Board of Education owns it and uses it as a maintenance shed for Catonsville High School.
The school board will soon vacate the building for a more modern facility. Education officials oppose efforts to place the carriage house on a landmarks list that would afford it a measure of protection. The designation would make the board responsible for maintaining the building on Bloomsbury Avenue, diverting already dwindling resources from school infrastructure to an unusable, vacant building. Preservationists are asking officials to recognize the significance and history of the building, once part of a grand estate built by Gustav Lurman.
A report prepared by the county planning department says the carriage house "provides a glimpse into what was a sprawling early 19th-century estate" and is also exemplary masonry construction.
The research details how Lurman expanded the estate, originally the home of the Dorsey family. He added a large greenhouse and expansive gardens and filled the property with rare trees and plants that he brought home from his overseas travels. From his hilltop home, razed to build the high school in the 1950s, he could look across miles of farmland to the Chesapeake Bay. A few of those rare trees remain on the property, as does a stone tenant house, which has already been placed on the landmarks list.
Several Catonsville residents recently addressed the County Council and vow to continue their efforts to save the building.
"We have seen the board's lack of enthusiasm for landmarks in the past and we are prepared to step up and help with this project," said Jim Himel. "Catonsville is all about its history, heritage and tradition."
David Wiseman said many historic mansions, which were the summer homes of Baltimore's wealthy families, have been demolished to make way for development.
"We have to keep our historic areas alive," he said. "We can't keep tearing down our history."
Because of the building's ties to prominent Catonsville families and its restorable condition, local residents schooled in its history want to renovate it into a meeting space or a living classroom.
"It is built of the same gray stone we still see today up and down the Patapsco Valley," Himel said. "You can see the original oak rafters in its loft. You don't see that construction anymore. This building is certainly not falling down."
Wiseman added, "It's a landmark and has to be maintained. It can be made useful for the high school and the community. Ultimately, this is the citizens' own property."
The County Council could seal the fate of the 2,000-square-foot building early next year, when it considers whether to give it landmark status.
"I understand the historical significance as well as the school board's feelings and the costs involved in saving this building," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, who represents Catonsville and intends to continue discussing the building with constituents before making a decision.
Don Mohler, county spokesman and former principal at Catonsville High School, said the council often hesitates to "usurp individual property rights and landmark a property over the owner's objection."
Wiseman and Himel bristled at Mohler's calling the building a garage.
"It is not a garage," said Himel. "It is the garage. You would be hard-pressed to find another structure in the county with this character."