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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 26, 2012

This loss is more than just a house

Patricia A. Kelly

I had wondered over the years what would be the fate of Park Hall on East Patrick Street in Frederick. I’ve watched horses grazing among construction supplies near the street between South and Patrick where one can access I-70.


The photograph on the front page of the yesterday’s Frederick News-Post tells it all. Just look at the graceful staircase with its finely curved balustrade, now open to the elements.


Permit or not, this isn’t the first, and, unfortunately, won’t be the last significant historic property to be lost in our county. Dearbought, one of the very earliest homes remaining in Frederick County, about the same age as the Beatty Cramer house and Schifferstadt, was lost after years of procrastination by the Natelli Corporation in making good on an agreement with the county to save it as a contingent of their development agreement. They committed demolition by neglect until it deteriorated so much that the county agreed to allow demolition in exchange for other small concessions.


Other historic manors have “accidentally” fallen down after dynamite was inadvertently exploded too close to them in the course of building projects.


Some have been given new lives, an example being Guilford, on Guilford Drive near Wal-Mart, which has now become a corporate center. It’s something like Black Beauty becoming a dray horse, but better than demolition.


Sometimes it is necessary; progress has its price.


It is important to note, however, that with each historic loss, more than a home or farm is gone. Part of our history, and part of the history of our country, is gone. With these losses and with the loss of understanding of our history, go some of the pride of our nation, along with our awareness of what has been created in the United States of America.


Visiting an old house is an occasion for wonder. Heavy timbers of wood that no longer exists in nature, such as chestnut or elm, are visible as support beams. Hand-carved and measured staircases floating three stories high, complex carvings and plasterwork, false graining, 200-year old paint, sometimes made from animal blood and milk, and stories of humanity’s hard work and resilience exist in these old corridors.


It seems more difficult every year to keep these treasures in the face of loss of materials and increased regulation. In the past, lead paint could last for decades on house exteriors. The interior of Drayton Hall, a very early 18th century plantation near Charleston, SC, was last painted in the 19th Century. Now paint doesn’t last so long, and labor is more expensive than ever, so frequent painting can become a huge burden. This takes nothing away from the importance of keeping children away from chipping interior lead paint. It is sweet – and toxic.


Regulations requiring renovation with original materials can also be onerous. Fir, a very hardy wood of earlier porch floors, lasted for a very long time, but is now prohibitively expensive. Use of currently available pine means more replacement, and more expense.


Living in a historic home is expensive enough, but renting one is much more difficult. Some municipalities require very expensive retrofitting, frequent inspections and fees, making it much less profitable, leaving more older properties empty and decaying.


It’s important to understand that a reasonable approach to renovation and maintenance will, in the long run, protect more properties.


It’s important also to understand that older properties have qualities not present in new ones. Masonry construction, high ceilings and transoms, for example, keep these homes much cooler than modern ones. Open porches with their old clotheslines can fit right in with a green lifestyle, not to mention saving an older home instead of building a new one.


We can no longer walk beside George Washington’s headquarters along Carroll Creek near Baker Park because it was demolished in 1913 to make way for a milk plant, that – itself – no longer exists. We can see the home where Lafayette attended a ball, the home where Abraham Lincoln visited wounded soldiers during the War Between the States, the Carty Mortuary, casket and furniture company, next door to the Museum of Civil War Medicine.


There is so much here to remind us of what independence, hard work and ingenuity can create that we should go out of our way to save it.


Park Hall’s demise serves as a reminder that we should all stand for preservation of our history.


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