The eyesore in downtown Frederick is 200 years old. It is — or was — a log cabin.
Termites have devoured the logs. The stairs have collapsed. The floor is rotted. The condition of the Rose Log Cabin on East Fifth Street is so precarious that a preservation contractor would inspect it only when the wood was frozen — to prevent his steps from causing a collapse. He lived.
“I hate it,” says Carol Heatherly, who lives a few feet away on a street in Frederick’s historic district not far from the downtown shopping area. “One day, the whole thing is going to collapse and hurt someone.”
In a funky town that attracts day-trippers for antiquing and good eating, the cabin, thought to be former slave quarters, is providing too much funk for its neighbors. They want it torn down before a storm — or even a brisk fall wind — levels it.
But they are facing an unwavering foe: history.
Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County bought the property in 2005, hoping to demolish it and build affordable housing. But in a city founded in 1745 and filled with notable 19th-century architecture, some members of Frederick’s Historic Preservation Commission have blocked the efforts, arguing that even though the cabin is crumbling, destroying it would destroy history.
Heatherly’s thought on that? “Historic people really get out of hand sometimes.”
In a meeting last month, the commission was deadlocked 2 to 2, with several members absent. The commission will take up the issue again Thursday night with more members in attendance. Habitat officials have grown so frustrated that they plan to stop paying property taxes on it and are bringing a deed to the meeting to hand over to city officials if the vote doesn’t go their way.
“It’s more symbolic than anything else,” says Ron Cramer, Habitat’s executive director. “We really just want to wash our hands of this situation. It’s crazy.”
The origins of the cabin are somewhat murky, but property records from the application for demolition show that a woman named Mary Rose bought it at auction from the Frederick sheriff in 1827 after the previous owner, Peggy Rose, had caused a “breach of the peace.”
Mary Rose passed down the property to her granddaughter, and it changed hands many times. David Grossnickle, a former Air Force technical sergeant who died in 1999, was the last known owner, but records also show that someone named Palmer Hicks lived there.
Cramer says that city officials asked Habitat to buy the cabin for about $9,000 in back taxes and fees.
Habitat had demolished another abandoned property nearby, replacing it with affordable housing. The city wanted to replicate that success, adding affordable housing as homes in the city grew more expensive. Habitat officials liked the idea. Everyone was happy.
“I guess we were naive to have purchased the property before we had the necessary approvals,” says County Council member Billy Shreve, who was then Habitat’s president. “This is where I learned the dysfunction of government. This has been absolutely, positively crazy. This thing is a dump.”
But housing officials left. The mayor changed. The commission turned over. And Habitat couldn’t come up with the votes it needed to demolish the cabin, even as it withered by the day. Habitat tried to sell the property three times but received only one bid — from a mentally disturbed man who offered $35.
“It’s really not worth a dime to anybody,” Cramer says.
Habitat resubmitted an application late last year. The organization has city planners on its side. In a report to commissioners, planners said the missing doors, windows and siding, as well as the “serious structural issues,” leave the cabin “unable to physically demonstrate significant aspects of its past.”
The recommendation: “Approve the demolition of the building.”
The problem: Some commissioners don’t agree, arguing that the cabin, even as it crumbles, still contributes to the historic district.
“I can’t be comfortable with losing a building of this age, of this unique character, just because it’s in admittedly bad condition,” Commissioner Carrie Albee said at a meeting last month, according to the Frederick News-Post.
“Frankly, I would rather see it sit there and turn to dust than see it approved for premature demolition,” she said.
Heatherly calls that statement “stupid.”
In an interview, Albee says the structural integrity was a separate issue from the historic integrity that commissioners must weigh. It still has historic integrity, she says, adding that she doesn’t believe Habitat has taken the necessary steps to prevent further damage.
But Habitat officials counter that they never intended to preserve it, agreeing with its own experts that it was beyond saving. Officials with Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit group working to save historic buildings, also declined an opportunity to step in.
“It is beyond repair,” says Nicholas Redding, the nonprofit group’s executive director. To fix it at this point wouldn’t be preservation, he says, adding that so much work is needed “it would just be creating a bad copy.”
And doing so would cost Habitat too much money, Cramer says. The group would be unable to sell it again affordably.
So now everyone waits — Habitat for Humanity’s workers, city officials, frustrated neighbors. Will the city give the green light to demolish the cabin? Or will the cabin remain standing, slowly crumbling?
Jessica Iannarone, who lives directly across the street, knows what she would do.
“Take a picture of it, put in a book, say, ‘Here it was.’ Then tear it down.”