Where We Live

Making New History in Ellicott City

By Diane Reynolds
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Up a hill, off a narrow road that winds past historic homes and the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, sits a secluded neighborhood of clapboard houses.

It's the Woods of Park Place, a two-year-old development constructed within the boundaries of historic Ellicott City in Howard County.

The 15 houses caused a firestorm of protest when they were proposed, with some people in Ellicott City's historic district worried that a modern subdivision would ruin the ambiance of the 18th- and 19th-century mill town.

Builder Michael Pfau, owner of Trinity Homes, called the district's zoning requirements perhaps the most challenging of his career and the development one of the most fascinating he has ever built, requiring even more attention than the 18 high-end homes his company designed for Kentlands, a neo-traditional community in Gaithersburg.

"It was really looked at with a magnifying glass," he said of the Ellicott City subdivision. "I couldn't do this on every community. It was just a tremendous amount of effort."

Kay Weeks of Church Road in historic Ellicott City was one of many who pressed Pfau to improve the design of his houses to be more compatible with the historic homes nearby.

"I have to credit the neighbors with going in with specific design changes over and over," she said. She was particularly pleased with the number and placement of windows on the houses and with the neighbors' success in blocking a sign from being put in front of the subdivision. "It all feels positive in retrospect," she said.

Pfau said that because of the stringent requirements of the Howard County historic commission, he spent an extra $75,000 to $100,000 beyond what he normally does on each home's exterior. Also, all the garages had to be detached or hidden.

"The concept was, when you stood on Church Road, you don't want to see garages," Pfau said.

Decks were forbidden, so Pfau constructed back porches on each house. Most of the houses were built close to the street, in keeping with the area's historic character. Some of the houses have wraparound front porches. Foundations of the 3,000-plus-square-foot homes are made of wood or stone, and the houses have historic details not only on the front facade but also on the back and sides.

"We designed the exteriors and then worked on the interiors," Pfau said. If a window was in the right place on the outside but not quite right for the inside, he said, the exterior took precedence.

Also, to avoid the look of a cookie-cutter development, each house had to be different. Pfau's company, with help from interested neighbors, examined many historic homes in Ellicott City to try to capture the look and feel of the town. The houses in his development include foursquares and farmhouses as well as the simple but elegant "Ellicott City" homes favored by the town's Quaker founders, a style Pfau called angular but attractive.

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