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Man seeks to preserve stone ruin in Owings Mills

One of Maryland's most mysterious ruins can't be seen from any nearby road. In fact, in summer you could stand within 20 feet of it and see nothing but the trees and vines that are slowly demolishing the fragile structure.

But behind that green curtain, off Garrison Forest Road in Owings Mills, you would find stone walls two stories high, pierced by rows of vertical slit windows that suggest gun embrasures.

Scott Frenkil, 53, a Lutherville mortgage broker, thought he'd found a forgotten old fort when he first saw it as a kid in the 1970s.

Experts who have seen it seem to agree the structure probably dates at least to the 18th century. The evidence suggests it was modified several times and used as a barn in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But Frenkil has accumulated a pile of documents that convince him that the original structure was built in the 1690s as a fortified house, or trading post. Perhaps it served as part of a defensive line, established in the 1690s to protect settlers fearful of Indian attacks.

"How could this thing be that old, and still … in this day and age, we're not preserving it right and recognizing it for what it is?" he said.

So last week Frenkil sent papers to the county Landmarks Preservation Commission nominating the ruin for inclusion on the Baltimore County Landmarks list. His quest, supported by the Baltimore County Historical Trust, would provide the site with a measure of protection.

Thomas A. Reinhart, administrator of architectural research at the Maryland Historic Trust, said the stone walls are clearly those of a "three-bay English ground barn," probably from the mid-to-late 18th century. Nearly all forts of the period were built of earth and wood. He added that Frenkil's "gun embrasures" are ventilation slits, common on stone barns of the period.

But Reinhart agrees with Frenkil on one point. "That thing should be saved," he said. "It is certainly one of the older barns still standing in Maryland … particularly the English form in stone. We don't have a lot of survivors."

Annapolis archaeologist James Gibb calls the place "an historic mystery, and a preservation problem that in some ways symbolizes problems we have across the state. The public doesn't know about them until they're gone." This structure, he said, "has deteriorated significantly in the last 30 years."

The ruin stands on a 100-acre parcel owned by Clear Channel Communications, which has broadcast towers on the land. Mike Guidotti, the company's regional senior vice president for engineering, credits Frenkil for his "energy and enthusiasm" in calling attention to "the possible historic nature of this structure."

But Clear Channel also must comply with a 1988 conservation easement on the property, which restricts what work can be done there. "We are taking this all under review," he said.

Frenkil wants the ruin cleared of the trees and vines that are slowly dismantling the walls. He has offered $5,000 from his own pocket to help pay for the work.

The walls of local field stone enclose a rectangle, roughly 40-by-25 feet. The roof and much of the long walls are missing. But the rest is more or less intact. The slit windows look out on two levels. Perhaps 8 feet apart, the openings are 27 inches square on the inside, but narrow to 4-inch-wide slits on the exterior surface.

To Frenkil, the design gave defenders room to sweep the approaches with muskets, while leaving only a 4-inch slit exposed to enemy fire.

Gibb, the archaeologist, thinks Frenkil might not be far off. "My guess is it's a fortified house," built as early as the 1740s, he said. Such defensive structures were probably surrounded by wood stockades "to protect the household and others in the area." He offered to organize a one-day archaeological dig.

One such dig was conducted in 1963 by archaeologist Reynolds J. Horpel, aided by Milford Mill High School students described as a "junior chapter" of the Archaeological Society of Maryland. They found ceramics and glass dating "prior to 1750," and buried evidence of an older foundation and a well within the surviving stone walls.

Reinhart is supportive of Frenkil's campaign, but said halting further deterioration of the ruin will require the consent of Clear Channel and two other parties to the 1988 conservation easement on the property — the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Caves Valley Land Trust.

Guidotti said last summer the company "will be consulting everyone we consider appropriate to get advice on this subject, consistent with the requirements in the deed to involve the conservation groups." On Friday he said, "No definitive conclusion has been reached in this matter."

Neither party to the easement seems to have an objection. Adam D. Block, until this month the central region planner for the MET, said before his departure that while "protecting historic resources is one of the things we're after when we do conservation easements, we're not responsible for seeing that those buildings are maintained, at least in this particular conservation easement."

However, he added, if Clear Channel agreed to allow brush cutting and an archaeological dig, "We'd probably be in favor of that."

Caves Valley Land Trust President Mitchell Kolkin said his organization's interests don't include preserving the ruin. Nevertheless, he said, the trust "has no objection to an authorized effort to clear vegetation and conduct a study. We simply … see no role for us to play and prefer to be left out of it."

The county landmark status Frenkil seeks would protect it from demolition, and a county planning official said that might include demolition "by neglect."

Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the independent, nonprofit Baltimore County Historical Trust, said a landmarks listing could require that the walls be stabilized by cutting the vegetation that threatens them. It could also provide county and state tax credits to offset some of any expenses the owners might incur.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/froylance

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