Like many area residents, I have been disheartened to learn of Washington College’s plans to demolish the circa 1931 John H. Newnam National Guard Armory in Chestertown. I joined that armory while still a senior in high school in March of 2003, and served there until its closure in the summer of 2005. What’s more, my grandfather served eight years at the armory along with a number of my uncles and cousins. Most importantly, the detachment of medics out of that armory landed on the 2nd wave of Omaha Beach, June 6th 1944 with the 2nd battalion/115th Infantry Regiment (formally 1st Maryland), 29th Infantry Division – the real men portrayed in the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ I had the honor and privilege decades later of knowing many of these local D-Day veterans – our community and nation owes these brave men an inordinate amount of gratitude for the literal hell they went through.
Watching the public testimony and discussion at the October 17, 2022 Chestertown Town Council meeting, it was argued by President Sosulski and others that the armory has been in physical decline for more than 40 years, that the State of Maryland failed to remediate the flood damage from Hurricane Isabel in September 2003, and that the armory was essentially uninhabitable at the time of its closure. He is wrong on all counts. In 1993-94, the State of Maryland spent approximately $1.4 million renovating the armory, including substantial asbestos remediation. It is true that there was two to three feet of water in the lower level of the armory during Hurricane Isabel. However, the State of Maryland subsequently hired a third-part contractor at great expense to remediate the mold damage caused by said flooding. I’ve confirmed with the active-duty National Guard personnel serving at the armory during this period that more than a dozen contractors spent approximately 30 continuous days completing said mold remediation at the armory. I was there at the armory when the battalion was disbanded in the summer of 2005 and can confirm that there was nothing wrong with the armory at the time (certainly compared to the mold-infested photos shown in the July 2022 environmental report). What is more, the State of Maryland retained a full-time caretaker for more than 18 months after the armory was closed in 2005 who was responsible for basic maintenance.
Following the retirement of the caretaker in early 2008, the armory laid vacant for a period of four years prior to its acquisition in May 2012 by Washington College. Allegedly, the State of Maryland during this time turned off electric power to the armory, including to the two sump pumps in the lower level of the armory and the accompanying ventilation system, which together caused a resurgence of mold in the armory. The State of Maryland can and should have done more to have better maintained the armory during this interim period. However, the recent environmental report from Sussex Environmental Consultants (dated July 12, 2022) confirms that Washington College has done nothing to correct this underlying issue. The environmental report noted that:
‘It is the professional opinion of SEC that the building has serious moisture and mold issues that, even if cleaned, will not guarantee issues will not return due to block and concrete construction.’
The report outlined that the mold contamination was due to both grossly elevated interior humidity and moisture levels (55-78% at time of inspection), and the presence of standing water in portions of the building. SEC is a very reputable environmental consulting firm, and I trust their professional judgment that remediation of the armory is near impossible at this point. However, serious questions remain. Essentially, during the ten and half years of ownership by Washington College, the two large sump pumps and interior ventilation system have remained off allowing a mold problem to exponentially grow and fester to the point of making remediation near impossible and overly cost prohibitive. Washington College has completed no corrective remediation nor even bothered to get this underlying humidity and moisture problem under control (as proved by their own report). In my ten years as a local government planner at both the county and municipal level, I have staffed two historic preservation commissions, and serve as an appointed member of both the Kent County Historic Preservation Commission and the Delaware State Historic Review Board. This is a near textbook example of ‘demolition by neglect.’ Whether intentional or not (and I pray it is not), this represents, at a minimum, gross negligence on the part of the leadership of Washington College.
What is all the more puzzling (and infuriating) is that the leadership of Washington College made a public commitment prior to the acquisition of the armory to provide a substantial investment to rehabilitate the building and remediate any underlying environmental issues. As per the Town Council meeting minutes of July 18, 2011, President Mitchell Reiss committed the college to investing $3 million towards the restoration of the building, and for the college ‘to assume liability for any environmental issues that may arise on the armory property.’ All the evidence points to Washington College having invested nothing towards the rehabilitation and restoration of the armory as was pledged and promised to the Town Council and community at large. This represents an absolute breach of trust to the community. Furthermore, the Town had commissioned and completed an environmental assessment of the armory and property by Earth Data, Inc. (another very reputable firm) prior to the acquisition of said armory by Washington College. If the armory was in such poor material condition then (as is now claimed by President Sosulski), why did Washington College take ownership in the first place, and why did they make a public commitment to allocate millions towards the rehabilitation and restoration of the armory? Once the college obtained ownership of the property, they became (rightly or wrongly, but in this case voluntarily) stewards and custodians of this historic public resource.
Washington College purchased the armory and accompanying 3.5 acres of waterfront property (zoned for commercial development) in 2012 for the rock bottom price of only $258,428 (representing the remaining Federal loan balance for the 1993 renovations to the armory). As per the 2021 State assessment, the 3.5-acre parcel is assessed at $787,500 (excluding the value of improvements). Even considering a potential cost of $100,000 to demolish the armory, Washington College stands to profit a $400,000 net capital gain to its portfolio given that they have invested nothing towards the building’s rehabilitation. I have no issue with Washington College profiting from the purchase and subsequent sale of real estate, but I take great offense to the college profiting off the destruction of an historic community resource. For the record, I do believe that a boutique hotel and conference center (a la Tidewater Inn) would be a welcome addition to Chestertown but tearing down this historic armory is not the way to do that. I would expect this sort of behavior from sleazy big-city developers, but I would like to expect more out of my alma mater, Washington College. I’m only grateful that our local D-Day veterans did not live to see this.
Jeremy J. Rothwell