A 223-year-old structure that housed the first black-owned business in Bladensburg has been condemned by Prince George's County, and local historians and community groups are seeking a way to save it from demolition in two months.
The Old Clements House, its floor, ceiling and walls caving in, is one of five pre-Revolutionary War houses in Bladensburg and the only frame house left from that era.
The resident and co-owner of the building, a 70-year-old retired landscaper who receives kidney dialysis treatments three times a week, cannot afford to bring the house up to code standards.
"I've been living here 70 years and I'm still living here," Mike Dock said. "I don't know if it's safe or not."
The house is divided into two sections, each with separate addresses and owners. The north and smaller portion of the house is owned by Merle Harris, who lives in the District of Columbia and pays the property taxes on it for sentimental reasons.
"I have no plans to live there but it was given to my grandparents, who were slaves," she said. "I don't have any money to renovate that house."
Harris is a descendant of a 19th-century owner, and Dock is the grandson of William Butler, who opened a barbershop in the building in 1900, making himself the first black to open a business in Bladensburg.
The house, also called the Butler-Davis house after the two families it was deeded to in the 19th century, is on 46th Street between Kenilworth and Baltimore avenues and is the only home remaining in three blocks of industrial and commercial structures.
If the homeowners do not have enough money to bring the building up to code, the county can raze it. But once the order for demolition is issued, the Prince George's Historic Preservation Commission can hold a public hearing and then give the public 120 days to present an alternative.
Arthur W. Brown, chief building inspector of the Department of Licenses and Permits, said he will give the public extra time by not issuing the demolition order for two months. Brown said the building cannot be restored but needs to be reconstructed from the foundation up, which would cost at least $200,000.
Commissioner Joyce McDonald said she is trying to put the home on the U.S. Department of Interior's National Register, which would make the home eligible for federal funding and, therefore, attractive to investors.
"It'd really be a shame to lose it," McDonald said. "We're going to do everything we can to save it."
Also looking for solutions is the Prince George's County Junior Chamber of Commerce, which is responsible for saving the George Washington House, another pre-Revolutionary structure just a block from the Old Clements House. The George Washington House was donated to the Jaycees in 1976, but the club had to buy the land for $40,000 and then apply for a $150,000 state grant for restoration work. The house is now for rent.
Jaycee member Bill Aleshire proposed moving the Old Clements House to land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission just across the street from the George Washington House. But his plan was rejected by the Maryland Historical Trust because of a lack of documentation. Aleshire is still working on the plan.
Dock, who lives in the Old Clements House, complained to Bladensburg's code enforcement officer, Robert Hill, that transients were sleeping in part of the house and starting fires. Hill called county building inspectors who went to the house, found it in deteriorating condition and condemned it Aug. 10.
"It's not like we wanted it torn down or anything. We were hoping they could do something for the person that lived there," Hill said.
The house, with a high-pitched roof and two large brick chimneys, was built in 1760 by Dr. David Ross. It is named after Thomas Clements, its sixth and longest resident, records indicate. Clements was justice of the Magistrate's Court and owned the house from 1832 to 1865. The next owner was Dr. Charles Wells, who sold it in 1886 to Edmund P. Godman, the manager of a livery stable. It was Godman who divided the house into two sections.
In 1892, Godman deeded the second floor, three-fourths of the first floor and the entire crawl space to Dock's grandfather, William Giles Butler, a day laborer. In 1896, Godman deeded the one remaining room to Thomas Davis, a black coal-cart driver. Butler built a wing to the house in 1900 and opened it as a barber shop.
The Old Clements House is not the only site significant in Prince George's black history that is in danger of demolition, said Bianca Floyd, a director of the county's new black-history study.
"It worries me a great deal," she said. "I'd really like to see that house preserved."
Floyd said that the 1-year-old black-history study has documented 60 historic sites but has not yet studied the entire county. She said many of those properties are in danger of demolition or are in deteriorating condition.