One of the most intriguing places in Howard County sits on a wooded hilltop, inside an eight-foot-tall mesh steel fence.
People are supposed to stay away. But over the years, they have kept coming to this imposing stone hulk of a building, which motorists can glimpse near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 100. Long ago, thieves stripped away the house's handcrafted interior woodwork, fireplace mantels and even its copper plumbing. More recently, trespassers, perhaps drawn by Internet reports that the house is haunted, tore away the bricks that sealed window openings and doorways, and left beer cans on dank stone steps to an underground chamber.
In the coming months, however, those intent on saving this old place called Troy will nudge their vehicles up a rutted gravel path that once was a carriage drive to the house. They will stroll the overgrown grounds and scrutinize the thick stone walls, looking for clues to the place's history.
After that, the county intends to renovate the house, inaugurating a new era as Troy is transformed into a regional park.
In the past, Troy's rescue has been stymied. But this time, the county has money, a partially built road and 80 surrounding acres.
"Over all these years, we didn't know which way to turn. The vandalism was getting worse," said Ken Alban, administrator of capital projects and park planning for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. "Now we have everything in place."
Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, praised the impending makeover but said the historic group recently decided to keep Troy on its annual listing of Howard's most endangered properties.
"We'll give it another year to see if progress is underway," she said.
Mike Logan, the county's heritage conservation supervisor, shined a flashlight into the hearth of a basement fireplace during a recent visit and ran his finger over the limestone mortar, picking off bits of crushed oyster shell.
Troy's remains, he said, "are the key to finding the story. The story is the biggest deal."
Although much of the house's early years are a mix of mystery and myth, there appears to be little question that this site is one of the county's first European settlements. John Dorsey, son of an Englishman and a prominent settler in Annapolis, acquired 736 acres in November 1695 not far from the busy provincial port of Elk Ridge Landing on the Patapsco River. Dorsey named his land grant Troy, and tax records from 1695 indicate he had his home here.
The Dorseys soon prospered and multiplied in the Elkridge area, then the back country of Anne Arundel County. A popular story, recounted by author Celia M. Holland in "Old Homes and Families of Howard County, Maryland," is that Thomas Dorsey, great-grandson of John Dorsey and an officer during the Revolutionary War, held local militia meetings in a low-ceiling stone chamber, nicknamed the "dungeon," that can be found beneath the large basement of the Troy home.
Other experts doubt that the house existed during the revolution. Howard historian Joetta M. Cramm said local tax records for 1798 do not describe Troy's 40-foot-wide, two-and-a-half story house. She said she thinks the Georgian-style home more likely was built in the 1820s, after the land's ownership had passed out of the Dorsey family.
Logan said the underground chamber could have been a wine cellar.
In 1958, the Maryland State Highway Administration purchased Troy as it acquired right of way for the construction of Interstate 95 and Route 100. The state's purchase ultimately saved a chunk of Troy from piecemeal development, but it proved ruinous for the house. After renters moved out in 1968, the house stood empty, and vandals took over.
Residents pushed the county to buy the property from the state. In 1971, Howard County purchased the house and 52 acres from the highway administration for $67,500. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
But Troy's troubles with vagrants and vandals persisted. In 1991, fire engulfed the house, destroying everything but its stone walls and hearths. The next year, the county installed a roof, braced the structure and smoothed cement over the walls to keep them from falling over.
Cramm said she was not sure whether what's left deserves an expensive rehabilitation.
"It's a boarded-up stone shell," said Cramm, a local speaker and the author of "Howard County, a Pictorial History." A better approach, she said, would be to preserve properties before they become ruins.
Nevertheless, the county hung on to Troy. In 2001, it reached an agreement with Manekin LLC, owner of the neighboring Troy Hill Corporate Center, to build a public road to Troy across corporate center land. A portion was completed two years ago.
This year, the county allocated $350,000 as its match for $350,000 in state money earmarked for Troy. Recently, the county contracted with a preservation division of the National Park Service to oversee the reconstruction. The house eventually could become a meeting and exhibit center for a park that may grow to more than 100 acres and feature athletic fields, picnic areas and nature trails.
But first, Park Service officials will study Troy's paper trail in public records and family histories, and analyze the house's iron-rich rubble stone masonry to pinpoint its age. They will scout the grounds for archaeological treasure troves of old trash dumps, outhouses and former lanes, said Fritz Rushlow, a Park Service exhibit specialist who will be Troy's project manager. Detailed plans for the property's renovation will be prepared over the next year.
"Is there enough of a structure left to work with? Yes," Rushlow said. "I would say it's worth saving. Now it's a matter of going back and filling in the pieces that are missing."