Home Archived Articles Old Digs, New Tricks: Preserving History, With Developers

Old Digs, New Tricks: Preserving History, With Developers

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Two buildings bookending the National Business Parkway reflect both sides of a modern day dilemma: how to balance the desire to preserve historically significant properties against the pressures of housing construction and economic development.

Both are listed on the Maryland Historical Trust’s (MHT) Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties. But that’s where their similarity ends.
Trusty Friend, a beautifully restored Italian Villa-style home dating to the 1840s, sits near the parkway’s northeast terminus at Route 175. As the focal point of The Elms at Shannon’s Glen, a mixed-use residential community developed in 2014 by Virginia-based Elm Street Development, it provides business office space and serves as a community center with a conference room available for rent.

In marked contrast, the decaying remains of the antebellum Grassland plantation can be found next to the Courtyards By Marriott, near the parkway’s southern terminus at Route 32.

Consisting of a main house dating to 1853, a one-story frame slave house and several outbuildings, all built by slave hands, Grassland sits in limbo. Its owner, the nonprofit Grassland Foundation, cannot afford upkeep costs and is awaiting the outcome of a tax sale in June, the result of a lien levied against the property by Anne Arundel County for nonpayment of one year’s prior property taxes.

“It would take about $20,000 a year, at a minimum, just to keep things as is, [excluding] major repairs or renovations,” said Grassland Foundation spokesman Marvin Anderson. “I would love to see some individual, group or groups be able to take over and move the renovation project forward.”
However, he doesn’t see that happening at Grassland, which hosted several encampments of Union troops during the Civil War. “I have little hope or expectation that government at any level, or combination of levels, will do so,” Anderson said.

History on Hold

In more recent years, the property’s bank barn was lost to the construction of Route 32, and much of its land was sold to Corporate Office Properties Trust for incorporation into the National Business Park.

The Grassland Foundation trying to save what’s left consists primarily, though not entirely, of the descendants of original owner William Anderson, a prominent businessman and architect who operated a dry goods and hardware store in Harpers Ferry, Va.

In 2005, an MHT grant paid for the restoration of two front porches, as well as the replacement of some windows, brick and roof repair, and the conversion of a second floor bedroom into a new bathroom.

The home has been unoccupied since 2003, however, due to its industrial use zoning and lack of lead paint remediation.

The main building could be well-suited for conversion to office space, or even a bed and breakfast or conference center, but its inconvenient location and unnerving proximity to the high security NSA annex that virtually surrounds it have foundation members seriously doubting that they’ll ever find a long-term commercial tenant or a purchaser willing to pay fair market value, as well as carry out the requirements of the property’s historic preservation easement.

“Our problem is a question of funding and a loss or lack of [community] interest, plus the failure of the state to provide significant funding that was verbally promised years ago, when the historic preservation easement was being negotiated,” Anderson said, emphasizing his fears that the home could fall to ruin before the ongoing legal process runs its course.

Barney House

In Howard County, the Commodore Joshua Barney House, in Savage, narrowly dodged a similar fate. Barney, a naval hero of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, once resided in the core building of the house, which dates to about 1760.

New residential owners purchased the home out of foreclosure in October 2017 and are now seeking historic property tax credits to repair damages to the house and bring it into compliance with existing historic preservation easements.

“I think it’s in very good hands now,” said Preservation Howard County (PHC) President Fred Dorsey. “There was a lot of vandalism going on while it sat vacant for two years.”

Similar to what happened with Trusty Friend, Howard County has seen a recent trend of developers willing to preserve historic properties.
Developer Dave Woessner, for example, decided to restore the historic Pue-Fulton house and incorporate it in the Dorsey’s Ridge residential development, rather than demolish it.

“The rental of two floors of the house will be sufficient to sustain the operational costs of the house,” Dorsey said.

Likewise, The Shelter Group refurbished the 18th century Athol Manor house, in Columbia, in combination with another project, and later turned it over to the nonprofit C,ommunity Foundation as a dedicated space for use by nonprofit arts groups. PHC is also negotiating with other developers in hopes of preserving other endangered assets in a similar manner.
“We’re finding that developers are more and more willing to spend money to save some of these types of historic buildings, particularly when they can find some useful purpose for them,” Dorsey said.

Saving Whites Hall

Despite the Trusty Friend precedent, the trend hasn’t caught on in Anne Arundel County quite the way it has in Howard County.

With tax credits capped at $50,000 claimed during a five-year period, “there’s not much incentive for a developer or individual to pursue it,” said Patricia Melville, chair of the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation.
That situation nearly led to the loss of Whites Hall, in Gambrills, birthplace of Johns Hopkins, who helped found the hospital and university that bear his name.

Neither the county nor the eponymous university wants the vacant property, which is currently owned by Millersville-based developer The Polm Cos.

Public outcry kept the developer from seeking a demolition permit in 2016.
In the meantime, New York resident Bob Brown, whose mother was born in Whites Hall in 1920, has established The Johns Hopkins House Inc. as a nonprofit organization seeking to purchase the property and convert it into a self-sustaining bed and breakfast, restaurant or tavern operation with a museum.

During the next few weeks, Brown plans to launch a significant effort to underwrite the project with the advertising and marketing help of the National Public Radio affiliates in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

“We’ll need to raise about $840,000, possibly less, if we can obtain a mortgage,” Brown said, adding that Polm Cos. supports his plan. “The consultant who will oversee the restoration of Whites Hall is Dennis Pogue, the long-time curator and vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon. “We could be in the building within two months or so if we’re successful.”
Polm Cos. President Rick Polm could not be reached for comment before this issue of The Business Monthly went to press.

Despite a spate of recent and pending success stories, Dorsey and Melville both cautioned that it’s far too easy for historically significant properties to wind up like Grassland.

In some extreme cases, Howard County has managed to save some historic buildings by moving them to the Howard County Conservancy or to Rockburn Branch Park.

“You can’t save everything, because it’s a question of economics,” Melville said. “But when we lose something, we lose access to a physical resource. It’s one thing to read about a place in the limited [texts] that exist, but it’s quite another to visit and study that place and be able to see it, feel it and even smell it. That’s where our best understanding of history comes from.”