Editor’s Note: The author is the architect of the Garfield Center’s lobby and marquee, however the opinions he offers here are his own professional point of view.
VISION I – The Historic District’s Living Town – As Enacted
Those who oppose the Garfield Center’s programmable LED screen have found their champion in the Planning Commission. Chestertown’s Planning Commission has answered the Historic District Commission’s “Yes we can!” with a resounding “No, you can not!” The Town Council will ultimately decide.
It’s healthy for Chestertown, that we debate contrasting visions of what our future should be. But which one is right for our community? One side is willing to embrace the capabilities of an emerging technology, believing if we are judicious, we can harness its strengths to the benefit of our historic town. The other side fears there is no way to control these capabilities. They will ruin the historic atmosphere we all cherish, and undermine our appeal to tourism dollars. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at both of these visions, and at their underpinnings in Chestertown’s law.
At issue is the black rectangle we can see above the two doors. The Garfield Center has proposed to install a programmable LED display there, every bit as colorful as the Hollywood posters which originally occupied this space. Chestertown’s Historic District Commission (HDC) agrees that is appropriate. The Planning Commission says it is not. Many on both sides passionately believe, whether the Town Council decides to go forward with this sign or not, that decision will have long term affects on the character of Chestertown, and the viability of our Historic Marketplace.
Programmable screens, also called LED displays, are a new sign technology with powerful communications capability. Like our television screens, they can just as easily display the sweep and serenity of a national park landscape, or the cacophony of a car crash. The ‘definitely-nots’ fear that range in capability, saying no one can control it. The ‘yes-we-cans’ point out the screen only displays what the owner programs his computer to have it show. If the screen is high resolution and the owner motivated to communicate respectfully, then the screen will behave as a good citizen should, and stay within any limitations the community sets.
Rehabilitating the Marquee
The Garfield began its permitting odyssey in 2010, almost three years ago, as part of its rehabilitation of the lobby. With HDC and Maryland Historical Trust approval, workmen removed the three 1960’s commercial doors (seen below), and demolished the letter board sign above them. Shortly after that, the HDC gave approval for the old marquee to be removed to a shop in Ohio for refurbishing.
The marquee languished when it was discovered that the theater’s roof was leaking. The re-roofing donor asked the theater’s architect to investigate. A structural engineer found the old roof trusses inadequate to support the heavy snow drifts an extreme storm could pile up. Then it was discovered that the ruddy tiles at the top of the façade weren’t terracotta as they seemed from the street, but rusting sheet metal with so many holes that the cornice below them was rotting. The job was much more urgent and complex than initially anticipated.
The Garfield team finally brought its plans for the marquee’s revival to the HDC in June of 2012. Those plans could have proposed to restore the marquee, but the Garfield Center had chosen historic rehabilitation instead.
Many people think the HDC’s primary job is to say no to change, but Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning more broadly charges them with nurturing the vitality of our Historic District:
The purpose of this Historic Areas Zoning shall be to safeguard the heritage of the municipal corporation by preserving the district therein which reflects elements of its cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history; to stabilize and improve property values in such a district; to foster civic beauty; to strengthen the local economy; and to promote the use and preservation of Historic Districts for the education, welfare and pleasure of the residents of the county or of the municipal corporation.
As can be seen by the emphasis added, Chestertown’s zoning law charges the HDC with promoting the economic wellbeing of the Historic District, as well as ensuring that its historic assets are not lost. Their responsibility for economics is nowhere more important than in managing the vitality of our Historic Marketplace, at the heart of which we find the Garfield Center for the Arts.
The Era of Momentous Change
The economics of this theater were running in its favor during the first era of its existence (1930s & 40s) which we could call the “Era of the Hollywood Poster,” as that form of signage prevailed. But, we could just as well call it the “Era of the Automobile” or the “Era of Electrification” or the “Era of Bright Lights”, as the horse was giving way to the horseless carriage, roads were being paved, electric wires jumping from building to building, and street lights erected. At the time, many people were likely thrilled by this groundswell of “progress”, while others felt threatened by change. What matters is, all of these developments occurred within Chestertown’s “Period of Historic Significance”, 1706 – 1939, albeit toward the end.
Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning tells the HDC it must protect our heritage of every era within those dates, the artifacts and attitude of the Roaring Twenties, along with everything more staid from previous eras, much of which the Roaring Twenties was rebelling against. In other words, they must preserve the authenticity of the differences we have inherited from our diverse “cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history”.
When the “New Lyceum” (as this theater was originally named) was designed, theaters almost universally featured marquees as their gateways to entertainment, and almost all of these sported lights aplenty. The marquee’s electrification is part and parcel of the momentous change dominating all spheres of culture and commerce back then.
Why Businesses need Rehabilitation
By the 1970s the downtown theater business had gone bust, which is essentially why this elegant Renaissance Revival building has ended up in the hands of a not-for-profit. The Garfield Center has no museum aspirations, and every need to make itself financially viable. They needed their lobby back, not in its original glory, but as an efficient generator of revenue streams: ticketing, workspace for volunteers, concessions, and as an independent rentable venue itself. The Garfield chose Historic Rehabilitation as their path forward.
At the National Park Service, the scholars at the top of our nation’s preservation hierarchy explain:
Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.
As a case in point, the Maryland Historical Trust, which oversaw a $100,000 preservation grant and approved the Garfield’s lobby rehabilitation plans, had no problem with building a bar where the original doorways to the auditorium still stand, as long as all aspects of these doorways are preserved.
As historic preservation professionals, MHT understands concessions are an important profit center for any theater. They agreed the counter and cabinetry could be built around one of the three doorway jambs (as you can see has been done in the photo above) provided there is no loss of historic materials. The historic jamb (on the right above) must all be there, if the concessions cabinetry is ever removed.
What is important here is that a proper restoration returns a structure to its original configuration at some target date(s), 1928 for example. Rehabilitations are obliged to preserve all historic features intact, but beyond that they can intermingle new features to make the structure more functional, including to achieve business purposes. Rehabilitations are not obligated to reconstruct historic features which no longer exist, regardless of how certain the evidence is of what had been there. As can be imagined, commercial property owners choose historic rehabilitation as their path forward, because as a preservation strategy, it allows the addition of contemporary features to make their facilities economically viable. The National Park Service puts it this way:
Of the four treatments [allowed], only Rehabilitation includes an opportunity to make possible an efficient contemporary use through alterations and additions.
In its marquee rehabilitation, the Garfield Center proposed the following contemporary (2012) features:
- The LED lights on the beams are pear-shaped like the originals, but frosted.
- The Art Glass (in the reproduction pendants) fulfills a 2012 color scheme.
- The ceiling’s globe-shaped LEDs are arranged in a 2012 pattern.
- The Coffered Ceiling is of contemporary 2012 design.
- The doors and door framing are likewise new.
Chestertown’s Historic District Commission unanimously approved them all.
For example, the Garfield team brought a wired socket and samples of both types of LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs to the HDC’s hearing to be sure everyone understood what they were exactly, and explained that such bulbs use only one tenth of the electricity that conventional incandescent lights consume. After the HDC had seen these bulbs illuminated, they agreed energy efficient lights are appropriate in this specific historic context.
Change is Inevitable
People sometimes think the HDC can require them to restore their historic building, for example, to remove old features, which may have existed for decades, but aren’t historically appropriate. However, the Town’s Historic Areas Zoning doesn’t give them that power. For example, the Garfield Center had the right to keep the pair of 2 x 4 fluorescent office light fixtures if it wanted to, along with the ceiling’s barn-roofing finish. Historic rehabilitation protects the historic material that still exists. Beyond that, an owner can leave existing discordant features in place, and add new ones, as long as the outcome is doing no harm to its historic context.
In its statement of “Purpose”, Chestertown’s Historic District Design Guidelines explains:
These guidelines provide the Historic District Commission (HDC) and property owners with guidance on appropriate methods for the upkeep and rehabilitation of the town’s historic buildings. They also assist in the design of new construction in the historic district, whether these are additions to existing structures or entirely new buildings. The guidelines do not seek to prevent change. Change is inevitable in any living town, and these guidelines are aimed at ensuring that change is appropriate to Chestertown’s unique character. The HDC uses the Historic District Design Guidelines and applies the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole. <Emphasis added>
The emphasized text is a strong statement of our town’s vision of how Chestertown’s Historic District can evolve, and it is enacted law. We will see later the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan also welcomes new structures, although the Zoning Administrator and Planning Commission are arguing in the case of LED signs, it should not.
Note that the HDC must use the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation (for updating a structure) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Preservation (which does not allow any new features) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Restoration (the museum approach for returning to a historic appearance). Note also that the HDC is to apply these Rehabilitation Standards “to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole.”
The Shock of Stam Hall
Has the Historic District changed much since its 18th Century origins? It may help to recognize that the New Lyceum was built toward the end of Chestertown’s Period of Historic Significance (1706–1939), on the block of High Street which is most urban. It was wedged between Stam Hall (1886), one of the town’s most massive buildings, and the three-story porch of the Imperial Hotel (1909).
Stam Hall (pictured above) was built at the end of one of the Eastern Shore’s boom periods, when canning was king and steamships plied the rivers delivering farm and orchard bounty to the hungry urban areas, growing, growing across the Bay. Stam Hall interjects French Second Empire urbanism smack in the middle of this English 18th century seaport. But as an intrusion, it is not alone. A “movable bridge” enabled traffic to cross the Chester River as early as 1821, followed by a timber bridge some decades later, and the Railroad arrived in 1902.
Mr. Stam, whose drug store occupied the ground story, was quite the entrepreneur. He must have wanted to boost Chestertown beyond its 18th C. roots, as his building portrays itself as a center for 19th C. growth and renewal. But in the 1880s, a peach blight stalled Chestertown’s economy, and that was followed by a series of recessions in 1887, 1890, and 1893. Like the rest of the country, Chestertown didn’t boom again until after the (1919-1920) depression which followed the First World War. Then came the Roaring Twenties, our Renaissance Revival theater, and its electrified marquee.
As disruptive as these structures must have seemed, the automobile is surely the most disruptive of all. As we can see in the picture above, they are everywhere. Each vehicle is operated without any historic restrictions, and some by chicken-neckers like me. As a community, we do not feel compelled to write regulations that require we move about after dusk with only our parking lights on. I’m not arguing against regulation, only trying to make two simple points: #1: We human beings are quite capable of adapting to change. And #2: Even as disruptive as it is, the car has not killed our Historic District’s appeal.
Why Strict and Why Lenient
At best, government can nurture the growth initiated by property owners, being careful to guide it, without over-controlling. Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning puts it this way:
The Commission shall be strict in its judgment of plans for those structures deemed to be valuable … [and] lenient in its judgment of plans … involving new construction, unless such plans would seriously impair the historical or architectural integrity of the surrounding area.
Requiring leniency may seem counterintuitive, and indeed some preservationists want to take an authoritarian stand against anything that could possibly vitiate the purity of the historic district, but they are forgetting a formative truth. The historic district they want to protect from what our current culture and economics would do – this precious historic district is itself a product of decades and decades of unregulated change, driven by all sorts of cultural and economic impulses, with nary a preservationist hand on the tiller.
There is nothing in the Historic Rehabilitation Standards which empowers the HDC to reject new features just because they do not like them. The closest such Standards are:
9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.
In short, Standard 9 requires new features be compatible with their historic context, and observably new. Standard 10 recognizes new features will come and go, and we want our heritage whole when they go. The HDC has judged that the Garfield’s screen meets these Standards.
To Sieve or Not to Sieve
Often what is of greatest value about any era, is controversial when coming into being, Art Nouveau, for example, is the source of the pejorative word ‘gaudy’ but Barcelona’s appeal and financial wellbeing owe a considerable debt to the creativity of their native son, a “Modernista” named Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), and so does the rest of the world for his work and that of his compatriots. The era is variously known as Art Nouveau, De Stÿl, Jugendstil, Stile Liberty, Modernisme, and in America, as Arts & Crafts. It spans from 1890-1910 worldwide, but as mentioned, Chestertown was in an economic slump back then, so we have precious little of its influence here.
We do have one derivative of California Arts and Crafts (pictured above) standing at 311 Washington Avenue. It was likely ordered from a catalog, an innovation in marketing which carried Sears & Roebuck to dominance in the 20th Century. Their catalogs sold whole houses, as well as everything in them. This house came to Chestertown in boxes by train, the dominant form of transportation back then. Our railroad tracks are gone now, and catalogs no longer dominate marketing, but this house still stands as an artifact of their economic reach, despite the round river stone being foreign to our geological heritage. Were these technologies disruptive? For local architecture and business, absolutely! But is it wise of government to prohibit for the sake of purity?
If we put ourselves in the place of our grandchildren, won’t we want Chestertown to reflect “the elements of its cultural, social, economic, political [and] architectural history” from our own era? As a “Living Town” do we really want our government putting our present and future through a sieve of the past?
For forty years I am proud to call myself a preservationist, but much more so because at the national level, and in Chestertown’s Historic Areas law, there is the wisdom and humility to restrict change only when it would destroy historic fabric, and never in an effort to stop innovation.
1002-2013 2 VISIONS – PART 1 FOR PUB 2