BEL AIR – Among the fast food restaurants, department stores and gas stations that have sprung up everywhere in this rapidly developing suburb of Baltimore, locals can point out the few remaining landmarks that speak of the town’s history.
On Main Street, Boyd and Fulford Drugs has stood for 114 years. Nearby, the Victorian-era Proctor House, built in 1865, stands in stark contrast to newly constructed row-houses around town.
And at 45 East Gordon St. stands another old brick building. Blue paint is peeling off the front steps, and yellowed newspapers, soaked with dew, litter the ground in front of it. Its windows are firmly boarded up, and in the yard, a large sign reads “No Trespassing.”
On Monday, the Harford County Board of Education voted unanimously to demolish the building, which, when constructed in 1882, served as the county’s first public school. In 1951, when a new school was built, it became the school board’s office.
The school, which engineers said is structurally sound, must be demolished to make way for a parking lot and a bigger playground for a nearby elementary school, a spokesman for the board said.
“We never like to see an old building torn down, but there comes a time when we have to think about maximizing the resources for students,” said Donald R. Morrison, the spokesman. With the town’s population boom, the small elementary school is bursting at the seams, he said.
But for a coalition of local politicians, historians, and alumni who lobbied the board for several months to save the building, the school’s demolition is another defeat in an ongoing struggle to save historic buildings that they say make up Bel Air’s character.
“I could give you a list as long as my arm of (historic) buildings demolished in the last two years,” said Maryanna Skowronski, administrator of the Historical Society of Harford County. “It’s frustrating.”
The society, whose primary function is to research the county’s history, has recently become involved in struggles to keep historic buildings intact as the county’s population grows and development continues.
“It might be easier to tear something down and build something new, but you lose the quality of the community,” Skowronski said. “There’s no charm to it.”
Preservationists point out the school, called the Bel Air Academy and Graded School, is a historic landmark because it symbolizes the beginning of public education in Harford County. It also had the county’s first school cafeteria.
For the school’s alumni, a few of whom remain in the area, the old building is a reminder of simpler times, both in their lives and in the county.
Harry L.W. Hopkins, the register of wills for Harford County, says he remembers every teacher he had.
“Back in those days, if you stepped out of line, you got spanked,” said Hopkins, who began first grade in 1932. Hopkins is the second in his family to attend the school-his father enrolled in the school just after it opened, in the wake of the Civil War.
James “Capt. Jim” McMahan, said the school gave him an introduction to patriotism that stayed with him his whole life.
McMahan entered first grade in 1944, near the end of World War II. His first memories of school involve bringing in money for war bonds.
“In the playground, we had a merry-go-round that you pumped by hand with a pulley,” he said, sighing. “Life was simple then.”
He recalls walking across the street from the school to buy hot dogs and candy from a local store. There was hardly a car in sight. Now, cars crowd the same intersection all day.
The school is also famous for having one of the first school cafeterias in the state. Traditionally, students would bring in bag lunches or walk home to eat. But during World War II, many mothers began to work in factories to support the war effort and didn’t have time to pack lunches for their children.
In response, two local mothers began bringing in food for children who didn’t have bag lunches.
“I remember the vegetable soup,” McMahan said. “It was second only to grandma’s.”
Many preservationists still hope the school can be saved. The board needs only the land, not the building itself, so some hope to move it to a different location. But it’s a long shot. “It would be extremely difficult to move a 100-year-old brick building anywhere, but there might be a possibility,” said Town Administrator Christopher Schlehr.