The small stone building, which housed animals and junk in later years, most likely was built for slaves who labored at the eastern Howard County farm known as Woodlawn.

Like other modest structures that dot the landscape, it is a scarce relic of a time when thousands of slaves -- men, women and children -- worked the fields, cared for livestock, cooked meals, wove cloth and nursed children for the county's white families.

Even when they were new, slave quarters rarely were mentioned in deeds, tax records or wills. After slavery ended, most of the structures gradually disappeared, succumbing to neglect and deterioration. That nearly was the case at Woodlawn. In recent years, the wood-shingled roof of the 19th-century quarters collapsed, and its stone walls began to crumble. A thick mat of vines shielded it from view.

But the rescue of the Woodlawn slave quarters, in Columbia, is nearly at hand. With the advance of warmer weather, a noted restoration contractor will start to pick up the pieces, clearing the debris-strewn interior, reassembling the walls and fireplace and adding a roof. The $230,000 project, years in the making, marks the first renovation of slave quarters in Howard that the public will be able to see.

"A lot of people thought this was certainly a story that should be told," said Barbara Kellner, manager of the Columbia Archives and a member of the Columbia Association Woodlawn Slave Quarters Preservation Task Force.

The slave quarters survived in part because the Woodlawn farm was part of the massive acreage that the Rouse Co. acquired in the 1960s for its planned community of Columbia. An industrial park claimed most of Woodlawn's farmland, but Rouse officials kept a parcel containing Woodlawn's gracious antebellum house and sold it to a private owner for use as a residence. Four years ago, developer Ronald Brasher purchased the Woodlawn manor house, on Old Annapolis Road, and the surrounding five acres to build commercial offices. He said he plans to renovate the manor house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The slave quarters, several hundred feet from the house, remained with Rouse's development firm. Rouse leased the land as open space to the Columbia Association, which oversees recreation and other community services.

After it learned about the slave quarters, the nonprofit group Preservation Howard County placed the building on its 2001 list of 10 endangered historic sites, where it remained until last year.

"We felt that, at the time, it was our best shot at getting preserved slave quarters on public land," said the group's president, Mary Catherine Cochran. The Columbia Association, she said, quickly lent support. The association has braced the quarters to keep them from crumbling further and installed a locked fence.

Last year, the task force asked Howard's architectural historian, Ken Short, to examine the quarters for evidence of its age.

Short, who is updating the county's inventory of hundreds of historic sites, has examined other slave quarters in Maryland.

"It fits the pattern we see elsewhere," he said. In the decades before the Civil War, he said, stone quarters were built as upscale housing for slaves.

"It's a reaction to abolitionism -- slave holders feel they are equally religious and in the right," Short said. "It's incumbent upon them to take the high ground and show what good masters they are."

Short found saw marks on the structures' broken roof rafters and rusty iron nails protruding from a half-destroyed wooden window frame, revealing that "you learn the most about a building when it's coming down."

The saw marks are consistent with the kind of lumbering done in Howard before the Civil War, Short said. The nails were similar to those made at a Patapsco River forge in the mid-19th century.

Howard tax records show that the property's owner, John R.D. Thomas of Baltimore, was assessed in 1850 for building a house. It could be, Short said, that while craftsmen were constructing the Thomases' Italianate home with 12-foot ceilings, a spacious kitchen and marble mantels, quarrymen also were chiseling heavy stone blocks for a single-room dwelling with a brick fireplace and a sleeping loft for slaves. A federal census taken that year reported that Thomas owned five slaves -- two teenagers and three adults -- at his Howard farm.

A second room was added to the slave quarters sometime between 1860 and 1880, during the long ownership of the Owings family, which purchased the farm from the Thomases in the late 1850s. The Owingses named the farm Woodlawn.

Soon, building tradesmen once again will be working at the old farm. The Columbia Association has selected Worcester Eisenbrandt Inc. of Baltimore to reconstruct the slave quarters, said Dennis Mattey, the association's project manager. The firm has repaired Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Mill Run, Penn.; renovated the Commandant's Office at the Navy Yard in Washington; and helped restore the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, among other projects. The work should be completed by May, Mattey said.

Task force members already are thinking beyond the restoration project. There's a cottage on association land, near the quarters, that might predate the slave housing, they said, and the remains of another building in the area could be the site of archaeological digs.

But most important to the task force is devising ways for the public to visit the slave quarters. A Columbia Association pathway winds near the west side of the quarters, separated by a thicket of trees and underbrush. What if, task force members have asked, a long-term project could link that pathway and others, along with nearby public lands, to create a miles-long interpretative trail that features the quarters as a prime stop?

Said Kellner: "What's the point of doing this if you can't make it accessible?"