Patapsco Female Institute’s ruins are a hidden Ellicott City treasure


The Patapsco Female Institute was NOT a women-only insane asylum.

Architects, here’s a tip: If you want your building to look amazing after decades of abuse and neglect, go Greek Revival. That’s what Robert Cary Long Jr. did when he designed the Patapsco Female Institute (PFI to locals) in the 1830s, and today its ruins look like a mini-Parthenon overlooking Ellicott City, Md.

Backstory
Launched in 1837, PFI was one of the nation’s first and best finishing schools for girls 12 to 18. Many students at the private boarding academy were Southerners. After the Civil War, when rich plantation parents weren’t so rich, the school declined, dissolving in 1891. The building became a hotel, a residence, a hospital, a theater, a nursing home and a hot spot for vandals. By the time Howard County was ready to fix it up, a full restoration wasn’t feasible. Engineers shored up the ruins, and the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park opened in 1995.

Stuff to See
PFI doesn’t spoon-feed its history to visitors. Outlines of fireplaces and stairwells on the floors and walls provide a sense of the space; otherwise, there’s naught but the guided tour and one’s imagination to set the scene. Picture nice young ladies (around 150 at peak attendance) studying botany, French and other topics in the 57-room school, strolling its gardens and gossiping in the parlor.

Stuff to Buy
PFI is available for weddings and special events. Or, see a show: The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s “As You Like It” plays through July 20.

Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3655 Church Road, Ellicott City, Md.; free tours at 1:30 p.m. on Sat. &  Sun., April to October; 410-313-5131.

Other interesting lesser-known attractions:

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum: A spoonful of sugar makes the arsenic go down

A House Undivided: Clara Barton didn’t take work home. She took home to work.

Privy Investigations: Outhouses and other archaeological treasure troves lurk under Alexandria’s surface

Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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