The Garfield Center Foundation has recently come up with a bright idea that has the potential to make new waves in downtown Chestertown’s local business community.
Now in the latter stages of the historic Prince Theatre’s renovation, one of the last concerns for the Garfield is to have the old marquee returned to its rightful position over the theatre’s threshold.
The plan, according to GCF president Phil Dutton, has been to have the marquee sent away to Ohio, where it is receiving full refurbishment to its original, tiffany glass paneled elegance. This phase of the project has already been approved by the Town of Chestertown.
But it is the Garfield’s second phase of their plan that has brought a very contemporary issue to the front door of a very historic town. They want to have a digital sign as well.
While cost factors and poor quality would have immediately deterred many small towns from using digital billboards in the past for their historic districts, newer, less expensive, and more advanced technology has given even the smallest towns the luxury of debating the use and future role of digital signage on main street.
The relatively small city of Riverhead, NY, for example, faced a similar debate last year when the Suffolk Theatre was being renovated in their historic district. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, similar to Chestertown’s own Historic District Commission, wrestled with the appropriateness of the newly proposed digital signage for several months.
As the Riverhead News-Review documented in their coverage, the commission was having a hard time trying to accept the idea of having digital component to their historic 1930s marquee. It was only when they started reviewing old photos of the original building that they came to the conclusion, according to their report to the city, that “The effect of the sign is similar to what the designers of the original sign were attempting to create, and might have installed had the technology been available in 1933.”
Closer to home, Princess Anne County has just had to issue a 120 day moratorium on signs after the Princess Anne Volunteer Fire Company proposed to install an electronic sign in the town’s historic district since the town’s 1996 ordinance does not take into account the new electronic digital signs.
Chestertown, meanwhile, is on the brink of such a debate.
For Prince Theatre staff like Sam Howell, the proposed screen’s digital, easily programmable nature will allow for a convenient way to update the community about upcoming programs and events pertinent to the Prince and other businesses. Described by its proponents as “not about selling advertising”, the sign would contain content that complemented other downtown businesses, like where you might go for a dinner deal prior to the show.
But for foundation members like President Dutton, and Chesapeake Architects’ Peter Newlin–the architectural liaison for the project– the proposed installation of this modern sign signifies much, much more.
For them, the LED sign has the potential to usher in a new era of economic vitality and growth for the Prince theatre and its downtown partners and peers in a way that the old back-lit letter board never could.
How would it do this? Well, the argument runs like this; By providing a steady stream of information pertaining to events, fund-raisers and shows to the theatre going pedestrian, the new sign would make the gap between seeing a show and finding out what to do next in Chestertown significantly briefer. In other words, what is good for the theatre is also good for the rest of downtown.
“A theatre really survives on signage,” said Dutton, “It’s really important that people are kept abreast of what the theatre has to offer, and what is going on in the rest of the community. If you go to a shoe store, you know they always sell shoes there, but a theatre is different; it changes week to week. We are a 501c-3, we came from money acquired from the public, so we want to be able to help drive attendance and economic activity downtown.”
Of course, The Prince Theatre isn’t just any theatre, it is a historic theatre (in a historic district) that has been recognized as such by the Maryland Heritage Trust. While Chestertown’s Historic District Commission has already approved the restoration of the old marquee, they have yet to approve the addition of the LED sign.
Ostensibly, this would be for two reasons. One, there is currently an ordinance in place that restricts the number of signs any given building or establishment is allowed to bear. That number is one. Currently, the Prince’s three-sided marquee contains three signs bearing the word “Garfield”, this new digital display would up that number to four.
Secondly, there is the fact that having an unmistakably modern LED sign hanging within the marquee of an historic theatre does slightly clash with the zoning stipulations for a historic district. It’s just plain anachronistic. But naturally, this is something Dutton and Newlin are aware of.
“Because of the new technology, people are rightfully concerned, but once we can help folks understand what the sign will do, to help generate activity in the theatre and downtown, I think people will start to change their mind,” said Dutton.
There is also Peter Newlin, who sees the GCF’s yearning for more modern signage as essential to the preservation and survival of Chestertown’s historic downtown. As a former member of the HDC, this is an irony not lost on him.
“Theatres across the board are moving to this newer technology because you are able to create a string of messages directly,” said Newlin. “What you really have here is a series of paradigm shifts, from the hollywood poster board system, to the moveable letter board, and now to the digitally programmable sign. The theatre is not just a theatre anymore, it plays many roles downtown, we need signage to reflect that.”
But for Kees de Mooy, Assistant Zoning Administrator and a co-author of the Historic District Design Guidelines for Chestertown, economic arguments for the sign’s installation have no bearing on existing ordinances to prevent such signage from going up in a historic district.
“The Historic District Commission has no business reviewing economic data,” said de Mooy. “We can’t start down that road, because the rational would then be that if there is a positive economic impact, then it should be allowed. Massage parlors, dog fighting studios…I’m using ridiculous examples, but just because it brings in money–albeit this assumption has been deduced through a very narrowly focused study–doesn’t mean we can approve it.”
In his view, the intrinsic historicity of Chestertown’s downtown is its single most economically valuable asset; adding an internally lit sign to an historic building doesn’t necessarily augment that value. It bears mentioning that in order for the GCF to install the new LED sign, it must first be reviewed and approved formally by not only the Historic District Commission, but the Chestertown Town Council. As of yet, this has not happened.
“The way their application has been filed, they have three signs on the marquee, and then they’re applying for a fourth sign, which would not conform to several provisions of our sign ordinance,” said de Mooy. “And then it has several features that are specifically precluded by the sign ordinance, which includes flashing and other capabilities that are outside of what we’ve traditionally allowed.”
While de Mooy acknowledges that there are a few other examples of internally lit signs in the historic district that were grandfathered in after the sign ordinance was created–such as Paul’s Shoe Store–that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Regarding Chestertown’s downtown as perhaps “the most intact historic district in the state of Maryland”, de Mooy hopes for it to stay this way, remaining optimistic all the while in the downtown’s current economic viability, sans LED marquee.
Meanwhile, it will be left to the Town Council to decide whether or not to alter the sign ordinance, deliberations which no doubt will take place in the coming meetings this July.