114 – John Hogg’s House, circa 1790, Williamsport, MD
The house at seventeen West Potomac Street in Williamsport looks tired. It has six bays, arched-top two-over-two window sashes and peeling window frames. A hip roof between the first and second floors shelters the main entrance and the two windows beside it. Built next to the right of way of the broad street, the house is sheathed in modern clapboard. A 20th century western section of the building has been removed, revealing log construction.
This is a study in how our historic treasures are lost. The house has been badly treated over time. Tasteless renovations and heavy use have obscured its origins, leaving it worn, poorly used and looking rundown.
(click on any image for larger view)
Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, a stalwart member of the Williamsport community since 1791, was looking for extra parking for its facility at 35 West Potomac Street. When this dilapidated property came on the market, it seemed the answer to their problem. The house itself was undistinguished looking. Two-over-two sashes became popular about 1870; the narrow oak flooring on the first floor and the square oak newel post that dominates the stairs in the front hall indicated a similar date. The church bought the property and planned to remove the house to build the parking lot. Once the wing to the west was removed to reveal log construction, the church fathers looked again.
In 1788, John Hogg leased lots 207 and 208 of the original plat of Williamsport, which General Otho Holland Williams had laid out just the year before. Each lease was very careful to specify …every year on the first day of May annually… John Hogg was to pay rent of …three bushels of good merchantable wheat or an equivalent for the same in Current Money. The leases further stated that Hogg …Shall and will within the term of two years from the Date of these presents Enclose the said Lott of Ground with a good post and rail or pale fence and that the said John Hogg…shall and will before this first day of May one thousand seven hundred ninety two erect and build on the said Lott …a house of Brick or Stone, frame or hewed Logs at the least twenty feet by twenty five feet in the base with a good chimney of Brick or Stone. The house, it would seem, is as old as the congregation that has purchased it.
If the terms of the lease were met before May 1, 1792, a double parlor, side hall log house was built on lot 208 (now seventeen Potomac Street) and a similar gable-end house was built on lot 207 just to the east. The second floor of seventeen also had two rooms with a side hall and a closed staircase to the attic. A bulkhead entered the cellar from the street. Stone foundations still standing in the basement indicate that there were fireplaces in both parlor rooms. These are gone, as is the wall between the two parlors. In the hall the closed stringer staircase is broad, and the steps rise gently to a landing, then turn to the second floor. The balusters are gracefully turned, and the newel posts of the upper rail are turned with bun tops. The spandrel beneath the stairs has simple wood paneling. With the exception of the square newel post at the foot of the steps, this is the original 18th century stairway that John Hogg built.
Not too long after it was built, the house at seventeen Potomac Street was expanded to fill the gap between it and the house next door, which also belonged to Hogg. This section has two bays and no basement. Its first floor is a step down from the original section, and there is no gable wall. This addition is simply nailed into the other house. Only in the attic, where the roof rises above that of its neighbor, is that end wall filled in beneath the roof rafters. This strange piece of construction allows a look at the gable end of the adjacent house, a peek at 18th century construction perfectly preserved. Part of a window with its ovolo trim can be seen, and pristine clapboards with neither paint nor weathered wear cover the gable with boards so wide that they have fifteen inch exposure. The narrow bargeboard is cut to fit around nailers that once extended through it.
The rafters in the attic are peeled trees, flattened on the upper side. In the older section these rafters are roughly two feet apart, while in the newer part the distance between ranges from three to three feet, nine inches. A crooked tree was used for one of these and still has a decided bow in it. Also visible in the attic, under the wide pine floorboards, are the tops of beaded boards that form the wall between the two bedrooms of the older section. The wall itself has been covered and plastered, giving no hint of the board wall beneath.
Somewhere around the turn of this century, this house was modernized. The windows were replaced with the two-over-two sashes, and the openings were probably enlarged. Narrow oak floors were laid on the first floor, and the original newel post at the foot of the stairs was replaced with the square golden oak one now there.
What would happen to John Hogg’s house? The congregation considered renovating the building to serve as a home for the assistant pastor. Estimated costs ranged from $40,000 to $75,000, more than they felt the church could afford. They then went before the town’s board of zoning appeals to subdivide the lot, leaving the house on a small parcel that would be sold. The town board felt that the house should sit on a parcel of no less than 5,500 square feet, leaving only about half the lot for the parking the church sought. The church’s subdivision plan was rejected in November.
With their options limited, the church decided to have the building dismantled. They were told of the Department of Natural Resources conservatorship program—a building is offered rent-free to someone who agrees to restore it—but felt that too much time had passed and that they needed to resolve the problem.
Williamsport is one of the oldest communities in the county, and this is one of its earliest buildings. But Williamsport does not have a happy history with preservation. In 1976 or 1977, an historic district was established and a preservation commission formed. A resident of the district began to put vinyl siding on one of the contributing structures, and the commission placed a stop-work order on the job. After a rancorous town meeting, the commission was dismantled and the siding went up. Times have changed over the last twenty years, and the state has recently approved a 25 percent tax credit for approved restorations to properties that are in local historic districts or are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The county offers a ten percent credit for exterior restoration work on historic structures and five percent for additions to them. If the property happens to be used for commercial purposes, the federal government has a twenty percent credit; and all these credits can be piggybacked on one another. In addition, the state has just passed legislation allowing low-income or tax-exempt entities to use their tax credits with their lending institutions to lower their interest rate or lower the amount of the loan. These are powerful arguments for the town to reconsider its historic district commission.
At present our regulations are not friendly to preservation. The church has done everything a reasonable group should be expected to do to preserve the Hogg house. In order to accomplish this task, the church board must be ardent in its desire to preserve, must expend extra effort in order to save the building. Washington County is uncommonly blessed with significant historic structures representing a wide range of vernacular and formal architectural styles. These structures and the beautiful rural landscapes in which they are set are unique and precious. These things set our county apart and can be the key to our future economic development. For this reason, regulations should make it as easy to save a building as to remove it. Owners should not have to be experts in preservation, skilled navigators of bureaucracy, in order to preserve an old building.
Zion Church has made a reasonable effort; they have tried. Now, unless some miracle happens, John Hogg’s house will be removed and recycled into another building. The town of Williamsport will be the poorer for having a parking lot replace an original 18th century log home.
Epilogue: Zion removed the Hogg House later in 1999.