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Cecil County Life

Historic Holly Hall is saved by Preservation Maryland

Nov 04, 2015 01:37PM ● By Richard Gaw

By John Chambless, Staff Writer

Hemmed in by the Big Elk Mall and boarded up against the vandals and the elements, Holly Hall in Elkton has been saved from inevitable decay by Preservation Maryland, which formally pledged in October to refurbish the historic home.

Elkton Mayor Robert Alt had applied to Preservation Maryland as part of the group's "Six to Fix" program that is preserving threatened places across Maryland, including Holly Hall. Preservation Maryland has worked since 1931 to keep Maryland's history from slipping away, and the grand, abandoned home near Route 40 is an ideal project. There will soon be funds flowing and workers actually doing something to preserve Holly Hall, which has a long and storied past.

The Federal-style mansion was built in 1810 and got its name from the elegant holly trees and boxwood shrubs which were carefully maintained around the large grounds. There are still straggling holly trees on the site.

It was originally home to Gen. James A. Sewall, a veteran of the War of 1812, who played a large role in planning the streets and defining the shape of Elkton. He was the clerk of the Circuit Court in Cecil County for 24 years. He played a role in building what would become Route 40, and helped get a rail line built between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Holly Hall was out in the countryside at the time, and Sewall welcomed visiting officials and dignitaries there until his death in 1842.

Holly Hall had a long line of owners and periods of neglect since then, and its status as one of Elkton's oldest surviving structures – and perhaps a bit of family discord along the way – has sparked several spooky tales about the place. One documented story was told by Mrs. Ralph Gray Davis to a Salisbury University folklore student in 1974, and it involves Sewall and his son, who had a falling out that led to the father banning the son from ever entering the home, alive or dead. Sewall's daughter supposedly kept a portrait of the son hidden in an upstairs room because Sewall had destroyed all images of the son. After being wounded in battle and feared near death, the son was brought back to Holly Hall by the distraught daughter.

"Oh, father he’s dying!" implored the distressed sister.

"Let him die on the road, for I swore he should never gain entry into my house – living or dead," was the only reply she received.

Knowing that it was useless to parlay with her father, the girl had her brother put back in the carriage and started back towards the house. He died the next morning with a curse upon his lips against the house which had refused him asylum.

Understandably, with a setup like that, everything at Holly Hall was subsequently reputed to be haunted by the sad ghost of the departed son. Generations of subsequent owners were reported to have spotted his ghostly visage, stalking around the house and grounds. The burial vault built by Sewall near the property was reputedly the site of some wandering coffins, premature burials or sinister cries from within – all of which lends today's Holly Hall an air of mystery.

Holly Hall has been a residence and a farm, and in 1921, it was the home of the Catholic Order of the Society of the Divine Savior. Later, it passed to several nonprofits including the United Way of Cecil County. It is now owned by Big Elk Mall, LLC, which has let the building stand unused.

The site still has an air of grandeur and history, including once being the site of a white oak tree that was rumored to be more than 400 years old. It collapsed in 2009. Holly Hall itself has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.

The practical concerns of keeping Holly Hall upright – and using it for some purpose – have now fallen to Preservation Maryland, which has a long history of actually doing something to preserve buildings, not just talking about it. They are experts at securing seed funding, lining up architects, engineers and legal help, organizing building assistance and publicizing the program to secure more investment.

For future generations in Elkton, that's very good news. Perhaps even the ghost of Gen. Sewall's son will stop his wandering once his former home is restored to its former glory.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email


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