One of Chestertown’s nastier architectural scabs is being picked at again.
No, I do not refer to the House of Tarps, which emerged from is blue cocoon as an Andalusian privy, nor do I reference that perpetually boarded up section of the five-star dining district known as Plywood on High.
I speak now of the decaying ruin out on the Quaker Neck Road known to ancients simply as The Armory, which more recent generations take to be Chestertown’s version of Frightland. The Armory is in the public eye again, and a sty in the eye it truly is, caught up in a vertiginous display of public distress, legal fist clenching and finger pointing.
In short, Washington College, the current owner, has, by what some allege to be sneaky means, secured the town’s blessing to have the old dump demolished. In its stead would rise a privately financed hotel and conference center, enabled by land lease from the college.
Well now, say some. “That’s progress.” The town sheds an eyesore and gains a tax-paying attraction and employer. “Who cares if the forbidding old building’s architect was Edgar Allen Poe and the Addams Family once lived there?”
Not so fast, say others. “That’s a piece of history.” These preservationists claim to have gone to The Armory to vote for Warren Harding, or once danced in the great hall to the tunes of Artie Shaw or were distant kin to the brick mason who created the menacing minarets that glower down from the building’s brow. (And these are probably some of the same people who complained when the college tore down their former high school on Washington Ave. only to be shouted down by “progress.”)
It’s true, though. In all its ugliness The Armory stood as a worthy civic center. The Sho’men and random kids kids played hoops there; the hospital staged its popular Christmas Shop fundraiser there; The Armory hosted an annual antiques show. Do we blithely turn our backs on those times? And wait, did not generations of citizen soldiers drill and muster there? Some of them to help save the world on D Day, which, I believe was an actual event not just another Hollywood concoction.
The preservationists claim there was a promise that surely some the old pile could be saved; that the dismal hulk could be restored and repurposed. Never mind waiting for Elon Musk. Call in those “Like it never happened” guys, hang a few pictures and Shazam! Whadda ya got?
Another gym? A jail? Eighteen indoor Pickleball courts? Another empty school? The potential is unlimited. Just don’t ask me to heat the place.
Meanwhile, the forces of progress seem to have the upper hand. And yet there are questions. There’s a certain fishiness to how this went down.
The Armory has stood vacant for nearly two decades, its grounds hosting an odd assortment of old boats on rusting trailers and an ever advancing wave of phragmites. Inside: the celebrated Washington College mold incubator. It could have been mistaken for a Nobel-worthy experiment in “Fermentation and Fungi as They Interact With Concrete” except that in reality it was just demolition by neglect.
And now it’s beyond saving, they say. The owner wants a vacant riverfront lot, not some ghastly Leggo domain, no matter how many fancy historic registers it is listed upon.
So the town caved. And what might we truly expect? Another traffic light to help college punks cross the road? More buildings like those Albert Speer-inspired dorms? A new and improved Food Lab?
Don’t be conned again Chestertown.
Surely you can cut a better deal. How about insisting that the demolition permit include a provision that the college-owned pickle factory be turned into a WaWa? Before it needs an upscale hotel, Chestertown needs a decent hoagie.
Meanwhile, there is some good news for preservationists. Now comes word from one of the insiders that the demolished building and the guardsmen who served there will be “memorialized in a tasteful way.”
I’m for that. Except those parameters probably rule out my wish that the new hotel include a bar named “The Arsenal” where the featured vodka cocktail will be the “General Patton.”
J. Taylor Buckley