- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

LA PLATA, Md. Towering trees that gave Oak Avenue its name once filled the two acres owned by Jane and Tom O'Farrell, shading their white Victorian clapboard home and its wraparound porch.
All that remains of those 100-year-old trees are sawed-off stumps and root balls that yawn up from the dirt where the oaks once stood. They, like most other trees and many homes in downtown La Plata, fell victim to the tornado that chewed up much of the town two weeks ago.
"That was the charm of our house," said Jane O'Farrell, sitting on the mud-splattered porch of her home, built in 1893. "For us, rebuilding will be like starting over."
The tornado that took the O'Farrells' tin roof flattened much of the town's historic district, where they live. It also destroyed and damaged turn-of-the-century homes that once made up the heart of this burgeoning railroad town.
"It was the best example in Charles County of what a railroad village at the turn of the century would have looked like. That is what made it significant and worthy of preservation," said Cathy Hardy, historic preservation planner for the county.
Owners face difficult tasks as they recover from the tornado. Most are worried more about the survival of their homes than preserving them. But if owners rebuild quickly with modern materials, they risk losing the historical value of their houses.
The neighborhood around Oak Avenue, which intersects La Plata's main street, was pummeled by the tornado, which tore off roofs, demolished walls and turned some homes into a jumble of wood splinters and personal effects. Of the roughly 15 historic homes in the area, all sustained some damage and at least two likely will be bulldozed, Miss Hardy said.
The storm couldn't have come at a worse time, according to Jack Warren, chairman of the La Plata Historic Preservation Commission and an Oak Avenue resident.
The commission had planned to create a historic district for the neighborhood, a designation that would have allowed owners to get tax credits and other financial help to preserve their homes, he said.
"This was the oldest subdivision in La Plata," he said, surveying the damaged homes last week. "Many of these won't be saved."
The homes were constructed around the railroad when tracks were laid in 1872. The county government and courthouse also were moved to La Plata in 1894.
Oak Avenue soon became an upscale part of the town, according to John M. Wearmouth, who co-authored a book on La Plata's history with his wife, Roberta. More modest homes were built on nearby streets.
"By 1915, all of the structures in La Plata were country Victorian," he said. "It looked very much like a Hollywood rendering of a late 19th-century frontier town."
A tornado that barreled through La Plata in 1926, killing 14 schoolchildren, narrowly missed the historic neighborhood. Services for several of the children were held at an Oak Avenue funeral home, now a private residence that sustained heavy damage two weeks ago, according to town mayor, Bill Eckman.
Residents face some tough choices if they plan to rebuild. The neighborhood was eligible in 2000 for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. With the designation comes state tax breaks and financial help.
But for most owners, the priority is making their houses habitable again, which can mean paying less attention to historical details as they quickly rebuild.
"The very process of doing that starts you on a path that moves you away from retaining the historic integrity," said architectural historian Orlando Ridout of the Maryland Historical Trust. "How do you balance doing something that is historically significant with doing what is fast and practical?"
To meet historic guidelines, a portion of the structure should be original, and traditional building materials should be used for repairs, Miss Hardy said. Persuading insurance companies to use expensive older materials to replace a window, for example, could be a tough sell for some owners.
With some buildings facing demolition, it is possible the rebuilt replicas won't qualify as historic sites because none of their original structure remains. The neighborhood also could lose its historical flavor if many owners don't rebuild Victorian-style structures.
Officials from the Maryland Historical Trust plan to take inventory of damage to the historic homes in a three-square-block area around Oak Avenue over the next several weeks. The group also will try to assess if owners plan to rebuild and if so, how they plan to do the work.
The O'Farrells tried to stay true to their house's original design when they restored it 20 years ago. They used plaster for the walls instead of drywall. That might have helped it weather the recent storm well compared with some of the neighboring homes, which were heavily damaged by the tornado. The roof is gone and some scribblings note where walls are sagging, but most of the O'Farrells' home is intact.
Mr. O'Farrell has sprayed in big black letters "We'll be back" on the second-story walls above the porch for all to see.
"Everyone keeps asking if we are going to rebuild," Mrs. O'Farrell said. "He just got tired of answering that question."


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