- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

Towering over quaint, historic Ellicott City, Md., is a majestic but strange-looking building — four huge classic columns front a three-story shell of granite and plaster, which, in turn, is supported by massive blue steel beams.

The architectural mishmash of a ruin is the former Patapsco Female Institute, a 19th-century girls school.

“It was forward-thinking at the time. Girls were not supposed to study science and math. It was thought that it would make their heads explode,” says Susana Burrell, assistant director of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. “They also had physical education, which was unheard of. It would make women faint.”

The school’s founders included the Ellicott family (the community’s namesake), which started Ellicott’s Mills in the 1770s. The school opened in 1837 and soon drew girls ages 12 through 17 from all over the country, even from abroad, Ms. Burrell says.

“It was primarily supposed to train the girls to be good future wives,” Ms. Burrell says, “but it was also intended to give the girls the tools to support themselves should their husbands die.”

The girls were mostly from wealthy families who could afford to pay about $200 a year in tuition and fees, but a few from families with modest incomes were able to attend through scholarships, she says.

During its heyday, in the mid-1800s, the school had about 150 students. It was during this time that Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps ran the school. Phelps was a staunch supporter of educating women and making them self-sufficient, but only on an as-needed basis. Their primary commitment should be to their husbands, Ms. Burrell says.

“She was a complex person,” she says. “She referred to men as the stronger sex, but she was still in favor of women getting an education, being able to take care of themselves.”

Phelps also published several botany textbooks that are on display at Mount Ida, the historic home where tours of the nearby Patapsco Female Institute start. Mount Ida, a home that once belonged to the Ellicott family, also contains an archaeology lab where the analysis was done of many of the 90,000 artifacts found during the 1990s renovation and stabilization of the school structure.

“We have programs where students can come and learn about archaeology on-site,” Ms. Burrell says. “They get to do real archaeology and get very excited when they find things — a wooden toothbrush, clay marbles.”

Mount Ida also has a second floor full of 19th-century girls’ garb, which tour guides can display to weekend visitors and visiting school classes alike.

“The kids just love that. Putting on the pinafores. I think it makes history come alive,” Ms. Burrell says.

But let’s return to the fate of the old school building. Phelps resigned in 1856 after her daughter, a Patapsco alumna, died unexpectedly. The school lost some of its cachet, and soon, student numbers dropped dramatically. The school closed for good in 1891. Shortly thereafter, it became a fancy hotel with an in-ground swimming pool.

“Wealthy Baltimoreans came down. It was their weekend getaway,” Ms. Burrell says.

The hotel didn’t last long, however. In the early part of the 20th century, the building became home to the Hill Top Theater, and after the world wars, it was used as a convalescent home for American soldiers.

In the 1950s, it was bought by a Cincinnati man who never lived on the property, and the school structure started to fall apart from neglect. Howard County bought it in the ‘60s but didn’t do anything with it, Ms. Burrell says. A nonprofit group aiming to restore the building was formed at that time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that its goal came to fruition, she says.

Today, the structure is stabilized and surrounded by hundreds of trees, including magnolias, dogwoods, Japanese maples, crape myrtles, sycamores, white ashes and American hollies.

Aside from taking a self-guided audio tour or a docent-led tour, each lasting about 45 minutes, visitors can catch one of the many programs the site offers. They include the annual Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in the Ruins, which takes place in June and July. This year the company will be performing “King Lear” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” featuring several family performances that will include a meet-and-greet time with the actors.

“It’s very nice. The actors will take the kids aside before the play starts to explain the story,” Ms. Burrell says. “My daughter loves it.”

Other programs include Victorian Dreams, which gives girls a chance to dress up in 19th-century clothes and learn about the way of life back then, and Digging in the Ruins, which gives visitors a chance to do real archaeological work on the site.

“I think we have a lot to offer — local history, Maryland history, women’s issues,” Ms. Burrell says. “And we encourage people to enjoy the surrounding. Bring a picnic basket.”


When you go:

Location: Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, entrance at Mount Ida, 3691 Sarah’s Lane, Ellicott City, Md.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Interstate 95 north. Merge onto Route 32 west via Exit 38B toward Columbia. After about three miles, merge onto Route 29 north via Exit 16A. After about seven miles, merge onto Route 40 east via Exit 24A. After less than one mile, make a right onto Rogers Avenue and stay straight to go onto Court Horse Drive. Court House Drive becomes Sarah’s Lane. Mount Ida will be on the right.

Hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays April through October. Tours are available at 2 p.m. when the park is open, weather permitting.

Parking: Free parking lot.

Admission: Adults $4, students and seniors $3, and children age 5 and younger pay no admission.

Information: 410/465-8500 or www.patapscofemaleinstitute.org.

Notes: The site does not have a cafe or restaurant, but historic Ellicott City, a stone’s throw away, has plenty of coffee shops and restaurants as well as antique and gift shops.

Upcoming events:

• Victorian Dreams, 2 to 4 p.m. May 7. Fee: $10 (includes snack). Reservations required. Girls in fourth, fifth or sixth grade can dress in 19th-century clothes, make period crafts and play old-timey games.

• Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in the Ruins, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, June 2 through July 8; 5 p.m. Sundays, June 4 through July 9. Tickets: $25. Children 10 and younger pay no admission. The company will alternate “King Lear” and “The Taming of the Shrew” on the dates above. For more information, call 866/811-4111, or visit www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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