Shuttered Forest Diner in search of a home

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They peeled the facade off the old Forest Diner on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, revealing an American classic. Stainless steel, glass, and compact as a caboose, the restaurant's original core from about 1950 sits in a vacant dirt-and-gravel lot behind a chain-link fence.

"I wish it was gone because it looks so sad sitting there," says Barbara Carroll, who worked at the diner as a waitress, then hostess, for 43 years — from 1969 to the end of May, when the last meal was served.

Now, from her spot at the hostess stand at Jilly's Bar & Grill across Baltimore National Pike, she cannot see the place, but she can recount the details from memory: about 20 red stools at the counter, the original six booths. On one wall, two plaques show that the original diner was one of the "Silk City" diners built by the Paterson Vehicle Company in New Jersey. The plaques are made of brass, she recalls.

Perhaps one day, visitors will see it all again. What will become of the old Forest Diner — recognized by a Howard County historic preservation group as a "beloved landmark" worth saving — remains to be seen.

The owners of the diner and the land it sits on plan to build new stores and apartments at the site. They've torn down the Forest Motel, stripped away the asphalt. They have a permit to demolish the diner, but one of the partners says they're trying to avoid doing that.

"We're looking for a good home for it," says Donald Reuwer Jr., the manager for Forest Venture II LLC, a group of local developers who own the diner and the land, across the road from the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, which stands next to the old theme park.

He says the group has fielded inquiries from potential buyers outside and inside the county, and will likely have to move it to storage before finding a more permanent home. He says they're hoping to keep it in Howard, perhaps as a historic artifact.

The diner's precise origins are not clear. Some news accounts say it first opened in the late 1940s, typical of the postwar boom in American diners as many returning servicemen saw the opportunity for a new business venture. A blogger on diner culture, however, says the serial number on the Paterson Vehicle Company plaque shows this one was built in 1950.

Either way, Preservation Howard County says, the Forest Diner has historical value.

In 2009 and 2010, the group included the diner on its annual list of "Top Ten Endangered Sites," along with such venerable places as Doughoregan Manor, home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the Ellicott City Historic District; and the Thomas Viaduct in Patapsco Valley State Park.

"This beloved landmark in Ellicott City on Route 40 is in the path of development and will be razed unless relocated," the listing says. "The Forest Diner is a real piece of Americana, and few are left."

Lisa Mason-Chaney, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, says the diner "is an icon, of course, for Ellicott City and Howard County. It's kind of like the Enchanted Forest. There are certain landmarks people associate with the area."

Indeed, David and Sammie Carpenter, who live about seven miles away in Clarksville, stopped by the other day just to get some photographs. They were heading out of the house and knew they'd be on U.S. 40, so Sammie reminded David to bring the camera. Days before, they noticed work crews had torn away the diner's outer facade.

The photographs were "just for posterity," David says later. "When company would come see us, we'd always take them there."

"We started eating there when we bought property here in 1983," Sammie says. "It's just a really nice, friendly place. You could get bacon and eggs any time of the day. We loved the Forest Diner."

Members of the diner crew and many customers have migrated across Baltimore National Pike to Jilly's, a sports bar and restaurant owned by Brian Reich, whose father, William Reich, sold the Forest Diner to the developers. There's a bar rather than a counter, and lots of televisions all around. Regulars gather there, putting in breakfast orders that some have been having for decades.

Mary Ellen Peters, who lives nearby and has been a breakfast customer for years, takes a seat on a Sunday morning at Jilly's bar and orders her usual: scrambled eggs and cheese on white toast, black coffee. She has a memory of having stopped at the Forest Diner on a date in the late 1940s, but she says some friends dispute her account.

As to the future of the diner, she says, "I'd like to see it anywhere around here, but I don't think it's going to be around here."

Settled in with the morning paper a few seats away is Rich Dietrich, who says he had made the Forest Diner a morning habit since 1969. Pursuing his Friday, Saturday and Sunday custom, he ordered ham and eggs and black coffee, as opposed to the Monday-Thursday order of oatmeal and black coffee.

"I'd like to see it go to the Clark's Farm," said Dietrich, referring to Clark's Elioak Farm, a few minutes away down Route 108.

Several people at Jilly's mention the 540-acre farm as a good landing spot for the Forest Diner. After all, between 2004 and 2009, the place became a refuge for more than 100 storybook characters and buildings that were moldering at the Enchanted Forest theme park after it closed in 1989.

Owner Martha Clark found room for the Old Woman in the Shoe, the Three Bears' House, Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty — so what about the Forest Diner?

"To tell you the truth, I don't know," says Clark. She says Reuwer talked to her about it about a year ago, and she expressed her reservations, although she says, "I'm not totally opposed to the idea, but I don't know if it would work out."

"I'd have to have a role for it," she says. "I'm not sure what that would be."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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