It was a place where proper young ladies of the day went for "finishing." But unlike most 19th century women's schools, the Patapsco Female Institute aspired to a much higher goal.

As headmistress Almira Phelps reminded the class of 1868, the institute was dedicated to turning out "thoughtful and serious-minded women" schooled not only in the fineries of life, but also in history, languages, literature and mathematics.

The dramatic Greek revival architecture, terraced gardens and lofty presence on one of the highest hills overlooking this old mill town led many to call it Ellicott City's Parthenon, exactly the image hoped for when the school opened in 1839.

The Civil War, however, decimated the aristocratic Southern families who supported the institute. The school fell on hard times and was forced to close in 1892. After that, the site bounced like a destitute dowager from one use to another, becoming, in succession, a hotel, hilltop theater, World War I military hospital and nursing home.

Howard County acquired the property in the mid-1960s, but the 57-room institute and adjoining chapel fell into disrepair and ruin over the next two decades.

Now, the only students who frequent the site are beer-drinking partygoers, police say. Over the years visitors have set numerous fires, scattered hundreds of beer cans over the property and spray-painted the crumbling walls with layers of graffiti.

"It was a fabulous place. To have it get like this and not do something about it is sickening," said Frances Mason, 74, whose grandmother graduated from the school.

Mason, a member of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute, is one of the leaders in an effort to turn the overgrown site into a park and botanical garden. The buildings are beyond restoration, but the group hopes to stabilize the ruins and use them as a centerpiece for the park.

The project has been endorsed by Henry M. Cathey, director of the National Arboretum, who toured the site last month and found dozens of plants and trees that are unique in Maryland, including a rare Japanese maple that may be more than 100 years old. Tulip poplars, which may have been part of the original landscaping, are nearly 200 feet tall there, and a hillside of lillies still blooms annually, despite years of neglect.

"I was truly amazed to find such a unique opportunity to bring plants, environment, history, nature, gardening and vocational activities to Howard County," Cathey wrote in a letter last month to county parks director William Mitchell.

The school dates from the time of George and Nathanial Ellicott, founders of Ellicott City. They hired the then-renowned architect Robert Cary Long to design the mansion and grounds. When it opened it was only the second institute devoted to higher education for women in the country.

One of the school's best-known headmistresses was Sara Nicholas Randolph, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson.

Its students, all children of prominent families, included the daughter of Jefferson Davis and the mother of Wallis Simpson, who was to become Duchess of Windsor.

The property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been eyed by developers in the past because it is located in a fashionable section of town with sweeping views. In 1977, a task force proposed building condominums on the site, but citizen opposition scuttled the recommendation.

A 1980 study projected the cost of refurbishing the grounds at $250,000. Mason and others say the figure is now probably closer to $350,000. But they have been unable to find the money.

Federal funds for such projects have been cut in recent years, and Howard County Executive J. Hugh Nichols says he is reluctant to finance the project without money from other sources. He has suggested leveling the ruins.

Mason and others say their best hope is a state bill sponsored by Del. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard) that would make $175,000 available from the sale of bonds. The bill requires equal matching funds and must compete in the General Assembly with a myriad of other pork barrel projects.

Although plans for the property have been stalled for years, time is increasingly becoming a factor because the area's harsh winters and strong winds are continuing to errode the gray granite ruins.

Scavengers long ago removed mantles, window paneling and other elegant touches, but now even the building's huge Doric columns and solid walls are beginning to crumble.