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Piece of history uncovered

July 24, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Sometimes, a little piece of history lies just beneath the surface.

One such occasion was a couple of months ago when Joel Merrbaugh of Hagerstown and his demolition crew were taking down buildings on West Franklin Street.

"It was all bricked over. I didn't even know it was a cabin," Merrbaugh said Friday. "I don't know how long that thing's been under there."

As it turns out, the remnants of 135-137 W. Franklin St. actually were not a cabin at all.

"It's too big," said Paula Reed, a Hagers-town architectural historian who viewed the building from street level on Friday. "It's a full-blown house."

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By Friday, the skeleton of the house's top floor was exposed. Four wood-frame window bays opened over West Franklin Street, and rubble was piling up on the ground floor and inside adjoining buildings from the ongoing work at the site.

Merrbaugh said the owner plans to tear down the buildings to make room for a parking lot. Tax records trace the owner of the property to an address in Gaithersburg, Md. A message left Friday at a phone number matching that address was not returned.

According to deed records, the property appears to have last been sold in 1947, when a York, Pa., optical firm took control of the land in January, and two weeks later sold it to Hagerstown Laundry Co. It appears the land still is deeded to a version of the laundry company.

Before that, the land went through a line of private hands that trace to 1888. In that year, it appears Martin Gruber and his wife, Ann, sold the land to a trustee, Alex Armstrong, as a result of financial difficulties.

Several Grubers owned land in the neighborhood in that time period, but records of the time did not make it clear from whom Martin Gruber received the land.

Reed said finding out when the house was built might never be known, although she guessed it was sometime before the 1860s. Finding out who lived there could require countless hours of searching through tax and property records, newspaper clippings, local directories and old maps and photos.

"The cool thing about it is people just aren't aware that this was the way Hagerstown looked 150 years ago, and there were a lot of buildings like this," Reed said.

From what Reed could tell, the building had gone through at least three transformations. The original structure that could be seen from the street had been modified at one point for a street-level store of some type. And the modern facade, which she guessed was constructed in the 1960s, looked like the most recent change.

"You would have no notion that that (house) was under there," Reed said.

Reed and Melinda Marsden, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, said there's little anyone can do to preserve the building.

The house is outside the city's historical preservation district, and it also is too late to try to examine the structure to learn more about its history, Reed and Marsden said.

"I've had people say what are you doing about (the house), and I say there's not a whole lot I can do," Marsden said.

Reed said that the house isn't the last of its kind. She said she suspects there are many like it in Hagerstown, but they have been bricked over and transformed like the one on West Franklin Street.

Marsden, however, said she was glad to hear one thing Merrbaugh said. Merrbaugh said a Pennsylvania man would buy the wood from the house and use it for refurbishing log buildings.

Merrbaugh said that had someone not decided to buy the old logs, he would have felt a little guilty tearing down the building.

"I just couldn't bring myself to running over those logs," Merrbaugh said. "Needless to say, if walls could talk."

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