Log cabin goes from ramshackle to restored in effort to shed light on historic Black community in Western Maryland

·6 min read

Opening the mustard-colored door of a little log cabin in Hagerstown, a visitor feels like a homeowner in an HGTV special just before the big reveal.

Oooooooooohhhh …

Ahhhhhhhhh ...

Inside, it’s a makeover that would impress any viewer of “Fixer Upper.” But the little house on Jonathan Street isn’t the product of a one-hour TV special. Instead, it’s the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between preservationists who hope the house in Hagerstown’s historic African American community will spark the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood.

It also might just change the way people look at houses. After all, the once-ramshackle structure at 417 Jonathan St. turned out to be one of the oldest buildings in the city.

The cabin — and its history — was nearly lost for good. In 2018, a police cruiser crashed into the home, rendering it uninhabitable. It was only when crews discovered historic-looking wood timbers that they realized just how old this house was, and how that made it potentially worth saving.

Reggie Turner, a Hagerstown financial adviser who sits on the Maryland Commission on African American History & Culture, said he had seen too many of the area’s old buildings face the wrecking ball. While Maryland’s Eastern Shore is celebrated for its connections to Black history — home to giants like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman — Turner says Jonathan Street, a thoroughfare in one of the state’s oldest free Black communities, is of equal significance. He wants to see tourism focus on the historic sites in the area, including where prominent Black businesses and churches once stood.

Working with the Western Maryland Community Development Corp., Turner helped broker a sale of the cabin to Preservation Maryland. “We have a neglected historic Black community with a rich history,” Turner recalls telling the preservationists. “With some help, we could start turning things around.”

Together, they were able to secure more than $250,000 from the state to fund the restoration project.

Preservation Maryland CEO Nicholas Redding said his group, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, is increasingly focusing its attention on projects like this, ones that don’t just keep buildings in amber, but make them useful for generations to come.

Preservation Maryland is working with Habitat for Humanity of Washington County to find a prospective buyer for the Jonathan Street house. Their goal is to keep the structure affordable — below its market value — and to find a resident who will take care of it for the next generation.

Redding thinks structures like the cabin show how vacant historic homes can be rehabilitated to create affordable housing.

“We’re too quick to throw away buildings,” Redding said. “Projects like this need to be done to show people it’s possible.” Tax credits could incentivize developers to restore such structures rather than build new ones. The group is partnering with the National Park Service to develop training programs for construction workers who want to specialize in historic preservation.While renovating the log cabin, the group made some fascinating discoveries.

Although historians initially dated the structure to the 1830s, some of its materials are significantly older. The Oxford Tree-Ring Laboratory, a firm based in Baltimore, performed dendrochronology to date samples of the home’s timbers, determining that they were felled in the winter of 1739. Historical records indicate that there were just two buildings in the area that year, both log structures belonging to town founder Jonathan Hager.

Redding called it “highly likely” that the cabin belonged to Hager. After that discovery, Redding said, the project took on a new level of urgency as one involving potentially the “oldest standing structure in Hagerstown.”

Today, the nearly 300-year-old beams are bare. In the bedroom, a wood panel was left exposed to display a penciled inscription discovered beneath newer drywall. Modern appliances and concrete countertops offset the rustic quality of freshly refinished hardwood floors. Trim painted robin’s egg blue ties a new addition to the rest of the house. Contractors raised the structure nearly a foot off the ground and added siding to protect the centuries-old wood.

The project was overseen by Baltimore’s Ziger|Snead Architects, the firm responsible for eye-popping renovations like the Parkway Theatre on North Avenue. Principal Ann Powell said she hopes the cabin will be a source of pride for community members along Jonathan Street, and help raise awareness of the neighborhood’s history.

“Our hope is in attracting attention to the Jonathan Street project, it attracts attention to the whole Jonathan Street corridor,” she said. “It’s very clear that this is not intended to be gentrification.”

An archaeology team from the Maryland Department of Transportation, which researches significant sites around the state, excavated the ground behind the cabin. Among their discoveries was a pierced dime, believed to be a type of protective amulet and evidence of African Americans who lived there later on. City and census records indicate that some of the home’s earliest residents were German immigrants. Its first Black resident, Annie Bentley, likely moved in sometime around the 1880s.

During segregation, Jonathan Street was a refuge for Hagerstown’s African Americans and others passing through the area.

Longtime resident JoAnn Claybon remembers when it was a thriving Black business district, with barbershops, a bowling alley and even a hotel where Hall of Famer Willie Mays stayed while playing for the Trenton Giants. That hotel, as well as another Jonathan Street business, were listed in the “Green Book,” a guide for Black motorists hoping to safely navigate the segregated South. Both buildings have been demolished.

Sitting on her porch, Claybon said a log building similar to the structure at 417 was demolished decades earlier — the site is now a lot where she parks her car. “A lot of historical homes have been torn down,” she said.

She’s been glad to see the crews’ progress on the Jonathan Street cabin, and is keen to hear about research that’s been uncovered — such as the connection to Hager.

History continues to turn up all the time on the property. During a recent visit, Redding paced through the backyard, picking from the soil buttons and mismatched shards of blue-and-white china.

Anna Scott has seen construction crews at work from her porch across the street. The 91-year-old Jonathan Street resident lives in a house built by her grandfather. “Oh, they’ve done a beautiful job,” she said of the renovations.

Turner said he’s watched the progress from his car, passing by on his way home. “I’d ride through and check on our baby,” he joked. On Monday, he will take the home’s elderly previous owner, Richard Davis, on a tour of the renovated building for the first time. The next day, at a ribbon-cutting for the house, Turner plans to give a speech outside the house expressing his hopes for Jonathan Street’s future.

“Against all odds, we were able to bring in a partner and get this work done,” he said.

Preservation Maryland is also helping with the repair of a nearby community center — the Robert W. Johnson Community Center, where what was the first Black pool in Hagerstown has been closed for years.

“This is not the end,” Redding said. “This is the beginning of something bigger.”

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