I won’t pretend to question the demolition of the mold-infested Chestertown National Guard Armory. I also will not pretend to hide my sadness at the impending loss of this historic structure.
However, the unanimous decision by the Historic District Commission of Chestertown, endorsed unanimously by the Chestertown Town Council, is the right one. Long-ignored environmental degradation negated the possibility of preservation. The cost of ridding the historic building of dangerous mold would have been excessive, if at all successful.
This iconic armory, built in 1931 during the Great Depression, once housed a unit that fought on D-Day, June 6,1944 on the code-named Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. This successful amphibious invasion led to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. Unit members exemplified citizen-soldiers from throughout Maryland who served in the famed 29th Infantry Division (Blue and Gray). The 29th, mostly comprising units belonging to the Maryland and Virginia National Guard, became celebrated for its hard-earned victories, not only on what had been a beautifully serene Normandy beach, but throughout violent combat in France and Germany.
As a Maryland National Guard officer, I spent time in the white-painted Chestertown Armory. I worked with Lt. Gen. (MD) James F. Fretterd, the adjutant general, to acquire state money to renovate the building. We had hoped that the construction would prolong the life of this waterfront structure. We understood and valued the close ties between the community and the armory and determined to strengthen them.
As I have learned, the future of the four-acre waterfront property could be very bright for Chestertown through the potential construction by a world-renown hotel operator of a hotel and conference center, used principally by Washington College. In researching this possibility, involving area investors, I also learned that the history of the armory and the 29th Division will be incorporated into the hotel/conference center in as-yet an undefined manner. To say I was pleased to hear that a notable military lineage will be memorialized in a tasteful way, would be an understatement.
If I put aside my Maryland National Guard allegiance, if only briefly, I believe, as do others obviously, that a hospitality structure on the Chester River would be a plus for Chestertown and environs and college as a community center. It would be akin to the appealing Tidewater Inn in Easton, long known as a popular gathering venue for Talbot County residents as well as visitors.
Preservation is always preferable. It retains the past while building a future. When the new is a necessity, as is true with the Chestertown Armory on Quaker Neck Road, the past need not be lost and disregarded. Inclusion of historic artifacts related to the domestic as well as foreign combat missions of units based in the armory, named in 1999 for John H. Newnam, a Chestertown resident who landed on Omaha Beach, would be wholly appropriate.
The decision to demolish the Chestertown National Guard Armory can be a positive outcome. The community and college would benefit. A proud military history would have a visible place. Visitors enjoying the ambience of a well-designed hotel conference center might pause to ponder the significance of a property grounded in the lovely town of Chestertown, while tied to outside national security events.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.