Notch Cliff Notre Dame Sanatarium

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Notch Cliff Notre Dame Sanatarium
Established 1909
Building Style Single Building
Location Glen Arm, Maryland
Alternate Names
  • Notch Cliff
  • Villa Maria Sanatorium
  • Notchcliff Life Care Community
  • Notch Cliff Stock Farm


“This is sure a hell-town and nothing short of it” exclaimed a man after a tavern fight left a man dead on the floor. The tavern was located in front of the present site of Glen Meadows on property owned by Mr. William Hopps. It was one of three small houses owned by a man named Stone and occupied by a man named Hilton, who kept a tavern “in a small way.” This tavern was the site of many rough brawls that contributed to naming the village Hell Town Bottom.

Establishment of Helltown[edit]

The Baltimore County Union Newspaper of November 9, 1909 presents detailed recollections of an unidentified writer who moved to area as a boy in 1863 He reports that Hell Town Bottom was the name of this stretch of road in the 1870s and early 1880s, although it is identified as a place name as early as 1850.

There are differing accounts of the size of the village. The 1909 writer says that there were only 3 houses in the village. A 1947 article in The Jeffersonian describes the village as a “short, double-row of 15 or 20 stone, frame, and log houses along the road on both sides of a big stone tavern, with perhaps 100 residents (in its “most flourishing days”).

Most of the men of Helltown were lime burners or worked in a small stone quarry nearby. The Gunpowder Copper Mill (on Harford Road) opened about 1812 and some of the men of the village are believed to have been employed there. A road about two miles in length (the present Notchcliff Road) ran directly from the village to the mill and it is said that a number of mill workers lived along it on small farms.

The Jeffersonian article states that five of the houses were still standing, and one of them was occupied, as late as the 1890s, and that the last of the original structures, a log house, was burned down in 1902. This is contradicted by the Baltimore Union writer who says that in 1909 one house was still standing and occupied. A large sycamore tree, said to be nearly a hundred years old (in 1947) marked the site of one of the houses

Notch Cliff Stock Farm[edit]

In the 1880s, on the death of Dr. David S. Gittings, John K. Cowen acquired 500 acres of the Gittings tract and established Notch Cliff Stock Farm. John Kissig Cowen was born in Ohio in 1844 and moved to Baltimore in 1872. At that time he was appointed counsel of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. From 1895-1897 he represented Maryland in the House of Representatives. He served as president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company from 1896 to 1901.

An auction sale advertisement in the May 10, 1896 issue of The Washington Post announces “the greatest sale of the season of highly-bred horses, mares, and colts….will take place the Notch Cliff Stock Farm, lower Long Green Valley, six miles east of Towson and thirteen miles from Baltimore, Md. The country seat of the Hon. John K. Cowen on the Baltimore and Lehigh R.W. Notch Cliff Station on the farm…” At this time he was selling all of his horses “…with the exception of the trotting stallions Notch Cliff and Calabash Jr. and a few brood mares.”

The 1897 catalog of stock describes Notch Cliff as “…the finest limestone land in Baltimore County…located in the midst of a large limestone belt of well watered, rolling land, noted for its great fertility and productive qualities…it is well equipped with large barns and paddocks, with an abundant supply of spring water flowing through each of the paddocks and barns.” Mr. Cowen stated his intention to breed light harness horses and heavier carriage or coach horses “with good manners and speed” and with pedigrees that “compare favorably with a like number from any of our best stock farms.” The farm and stock were in charge of Mr. Richard C. Frances.

Villa Maria Sanatorium at Notch Cliff[edit]

Mr. Cowen died in 1904. The property was placed on the market in 1907. An advertisement in the Towson Democrat and General dated April 20, 1907 read “All that tract of land containing 484 acres of land more less known as Notch Cliff Farm will be sold at public auction on Friday May 17, 1907 subject to the right of way of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (which bisected the property and had two stations on it—Notch Cliff and Glen Arm). The School Sisters of Notre Dame bought the property in July 1908 for the sum of $24,705.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame were founded in Bavaria. The Order came to the United States in 1847 to teach the thousands of German immigrants in the US. Its headquarters were in Milwaukee all plans for the purchase and buildings had to be approved by Milwaukee.

The handwritten entry in the first chronicle of Villa Maria Sanatorium at Notch Cliff reads “The large farm was bought mainly for raising potatoes, wheat, fodder etc., and for the keeping of the cows that were to supply the Motherhouse and Notre Dame College with milk, while the adjoining ground was deemed an appropriate site for our ‘Home.’” The Home was to be a residence for sick and convalescent sisters. Sisters also came to visit, to make a retreat, or to spend the summer for vacation or to help out.

On the land purchased were two large houses, barns, and sheds. One of the houses near the road and barns became the overseer’s home (now the horse farm, still owned by Glen Meadows). The other house, “at some distance towards Glen Arm,” was a 3-storey manor house with slave quarters, said to be over 100 years old. This house was known as St. Ann’s and used by mission sisters for short stays during vacation time.

Stone for the construction of Villa Maria’s foundation was quarried from the crest of the hill opposite the building site (referred to as Snowbird Valley). The shingled building featured large porches on the infirmary wing and a gothic chapel named “Mary Help of the Sick.” It was dedicated by Cardinal Gibbons on November 17, 1909. The cemetery was consecrated in 1910. SSND still retains ownership of the cemetery and Glen Meadows rings the Joseph bell for funerals. The 500 pound bell was named after St Joseph, patron saint of a happy death. It was rung 3 times a day from 1908 until Villa Maria was closed in 1984.

Prominent local physician, Dr. John S Green of Greenlea, Long Green, was hired as house-physician.

Over the next 20 years, SSND bought a total of 7 parcels of land, making Villa Maria nearly 500 acres in size.

In 1930 the shingled house was replaced by a brick building on the same foundation, with a new wing added at each end. Again, stone was quarried across the valley. Villa Maria had 141 rooms with a basement as long as a football field (1982). There was a Peeling Room where 11,000 pounds of potatoes were stored in the root cellar. There was a laundry room with a 12-foot press for ironing sheets. The physical therapy wing contained a whirlpool bath. There was a bakery where sisters prepared fresh bread and pastries daily. The sisters did all of the cooking for the Home. In the occupational therapy/crafts room, sisters made dolls, stuffed animals, crocheted blankets and baby sets, and embroidery work. These handicrafts were sold in the gift shop at the College of Notre Dame.

Mr. Bayliss and Mr. Goings were two of the farm workers overseen by the sister in charge of the farm. There were apple, peach, and pear orchards. They raised cattle and pigs and crops of beans and corn. Their products supplied the needs of the sanatorium, the Baltimore Motherhouse, and the College of Notre Dame. Vegetables, fruits, and dairy products were shipped by train to the Motherhouse at Charles Street and Bellona Avenue. The cattle were sold in 1965 and farming finally became unmanageable in 1979, when the sisters began leasing 300 acres of farmland.

In 1981, there were 64 sisters living in the Villa’s 141 rooms and the annual heating bill was more than $100,000. As the sisters’ numbers declined (as with other religious orders) and the expense of running both the Villa and the Motherhouse increased, the Sisters decided to sell Villa Maria. 504 acres and the home were placed on the market for 2.5 million dollars. The sisters moved to Villa Assumpta, the Motherhouse, on November 7-9, 1984.

Notchcliff Life Care Community[edit]

In 1984 the property was bought for 2.3 million dollars by a group of healthcare executives and physicians from Fallston General Hospital and they opened the Notchcliff Life Care community in 1986. This group filed for bankruptcy in 1988. Presbyterian Homes Incorporated purchased the property in 1993 after taking over the day-to-day operations in 1990.

The property currently comprises 483 acres with all but 15 acres placed in conservation. Sister Maura, who wrote these words in 1963, would likely agree that they still describe the beauty of Notch Cliff.

“The seasons wheel about Villa Maria with God’s touch upon them. Springtime orchards are shell pink and white. Summer light lingers on the meadows; shadows make cool lanes under the trees; berries ripen; rain waters the corn and potato fields, the heavy Maryland tomato plants. Autumn means that the gum tree will be flaming, the maple scarlet, the oaks ruse color. But winter brings whiteness and an almost paradisine beauty to Notch Cliff: there are long sweeps of untouched whiteness; telephone and electric poles carry their burden of snow on the cross-beam; small lakes of whiteness pool each ivy leaf.”[1]