As a resident of Chestertown, I appreciate your commitment to protect and promote our architectural heritage which creates the sense of place we enjoy and proudly call home. As a former consultant to historic review boards and contributor to historic design standards, with also a stint on a prestigious historic commission, I know your job is not an easy one. As a design professional tasked to preserve, restore, rehab and repurpose historic structures I have also experienced the rewards of preserving built history for future generations. It is a noble mission we share.
As a realist, I have also faced the decision to recommend removal of a historic resource from the rolls. That has only happened twice in my career and in both cases I was required to produce significant justification beyond the pale. So, I too have wrestled with the fate of a historic building placed in my hands.
I firmly believe that every opportunity must be examined and taken to protect a historic resource from demolition. Additionally, your by-laws require it. Further, certain proofs must be met in order to approve such irrevocable action, for once a building of stature is gone, the townscape will never be the same.
I present the following for consideration regarding the applicant’s request to demolish the Chestertown Newnam Armory, circa 1931, as designed by Baltimore architect William Gordon Beecher. The opinions are based on my experience, training and education as an architect involved with numerous historic projects, including those with Landmark status.
First and foremost, I support applicant Washington College’s proposal for a boutique hotel at the armory site, acknowledge the added benefit to local businesses, our citizens and community, but firmly believe that integration of the historic and distinguished armory is the most responsive and authentic approach to preserve its history, enrich the historic townscape, celebrate the stories and honor those having served in times of peace and conflict.
For background, armories have been successfully repurposed for boutique hotels with many fine examples across the nation. Their large drill halls and robust construction with distinctive architectural styling makes them ideal candidates for repurposing. The Chestertown armory is no exception and Washington College previously considered repurposing the armory for a hotel.
To understand the potential of repurposing the armory, I reference Exhibit J of Washington College’s application. There you will find a 2017 design study for repurposing the 1931 portion of the armory for a boutique hotel. The drill hall is reused for the upfront perfunctory guest services, featuring a 2-story atrium, while the hotel room addition is located on the easterly end overlooking the Chester River. The layout utilizes the armory and site wisely and illustrates how old and new can be successfully integrated. There are other important benefits as well, including building cost savings, delivery time to market savings and significant reduction of embodied carbon emissions by repurposing.
The hotel industry has acknowledged these benefits and further heralds the reuse of historic properties as providing the unique hotel experience that travelers seek. It is a hot hotel trend resulting in many exciting and financially successful projects and we can have such a unique hotel in town. It is a win-win proposition across the matrix of business, historic and environmental indices. I need not stress that we have a cutting edge opportunity to further brand Chestertown as a unique destination and a good steward of its historic properties by repurposing the armory. The 2017 design study as a model can get us there and the concept has my full support.
Referencing the Historic District Guidelines for Chestertown, I note the following for consideration relating to the application before you.
Demolition by Neglect
As cited under Section II of the Guidelines, a property owner must protect a historic structure in stasis to prevent deterioration or the potential loss of important elements. Water intrusion is a noted example of a threat. Based on my walkthrough of the building during late December 2022, conditions were observed that allowed for water intrusion and these conditions remain uncorrected to date. This situation is prohibited by Chestertown’s Historic Area Zoning ordinance. Further referencing the Guidelines, the HDC is authorized to prevent such situations. The failure of both the Applicant and the HDC to correct water intrusion has exacerbated deterioration and development of mold at the armory.
In my view, the disregard and neglect, whether intentional or not, which has caused conditions as a basis for requesting demolition should not be rewarded by approval, particularly when the structure is also an important community historic resource. On the contrary, every reasonable and accepted practice of the industry should be required to save the 1931 portion. I believe it is within your purview to request the Applicant to prepare and implement an emergency stabilization and action plan for this section of the structure in lieu of approving its demolition. This course of action will allow the project to proceed and afford protection of the 1931 structure for repurposing.
Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation
The HDC has adopted the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and in doing so has paved the way for rehabbing the armory for a repurposed use. The scope will guide the continued use of the armory while setting forth parameters for any additions. Item number 3 which states that ’Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place and use’ is important to keep in mind. During my discussions in the community regarding reuse of the armory, I hear remarks such as ‘I think the building is ugly’. My respectful response is that it doesn’t enter into the equation. The Armory reflects the mood of the nation post-depression and a nation shifting to a wartime footing. That is the intrinsic value of the façade in the district – it tells the story of its time. The Historic Preservation Act acknowledges the contribution of all historic buildings within the Historic District, despite the style or era. It is not a matter of picking winners and losers based on personal preferences.
Contributing or Non-contributing Structure
The established ‘Period of Significance’ for the Chestertown Historic District is 1709 to 1939. Due to the armory being built in 1931, the structure qualifies as a contributing resource according to the National Register criteria.
Additionally, referencing Section VI of the Guidelines, specifically paragraph VI.2.2, the criteria for evaluating the buildings significance is provided for further consideration as a contributing resource. To be considered a contributing structure, the armory must meet one or more of the listed criteria. Based on my knowledge of the armory, it resoundingly qualifies by virtue of providing the following items of significance, by referencing the list.
- Have character, interest or value and contribute to the Town’s heritage
- Be associated with the life of an outstanding historical person
- Represent one or more periods or styles of architecture, building or construction with significant character, interest, or value as part of the development, heritage or culture of Chestertown
- Demonstrate characteristics that make it a recognizable entity, the preservation of which is essential to the integrity of the Historic District
- Provide historic or scenic value that is significant to the area
- Contribute information of historical, cultural or social importance relating to the heritage of the community
Disapproval of Demolition
Referencing Paragraph VI.2.3 of the Guidelines, a second hearing will be held to approve or disapprove demolition if the structure is determined to be a contributing resource. I believe the armory qualifies so there should be a second hearing on the matter of demolition. Evaluation will consider impact to the integrity of the Historic District if demolished, and the impacts to public welfare and substantial hardships to the applicant if not demolished.
Regarding the impact to the historic district, the content of this letter should serve to underscore the validity of significant impacts with irrevocable loss and damage with demolition.
Regarding the detriment to the public welfare by disapproval, this letter serves to underscore that the enterprise, a boutique hotel, can in fact be fulfilled by repurposing the armory.
Regarding hardships to the applicant, the content of this letter and testaments from the hotel industry at large, serve to underscore that the armory can be put to reasonable benefit for the applicant.
This leaves evaluation for substantial economic hardship to the applicant, and there are relevant items to consider that would favor, rather than harm, the applicant. For example, mold remediation is more cost effective compared to demolition, by approximately $500,000 per the estimates.
Next, repurposing of the 1931 portion of the armory will realize savings compared to new construction, as explained below. You should also consider another benefit afforded to the applicant which is bringing the project to market quicker, thereby realizing profits in a much shorter timeframe.
The most significant financial advantage available by repurposing the armory is construction cost savings.
During the first quarter of 2023, the square foot cost of constructing a new 4 star hotel in our region was estimated at $410 per square foot. Accordingly, replacing the current building area of the 1931 portion with new construction is $7.6 mil plus demolition or $8.2 mil. The comparative cost for rehabbing the armory is estimated at $5.8 mil, including the cost of remediation. Therefore, the savings for repurposing over building new is estimated at $2.4 mil.
The forgoing serves to illustrate that repurposing not only benefits the historic district, but also proves beneficial to the applicant, if savvy and experienced enough to capitalize on the opportunities afforded by rehabbing existing buildings. It is being done throughout the nation and for the first time ever, the architectural fees for rehabilitation has exceeded new construction in the marketplace. Finally, the applicant’s financial bottom line is further enhanced by the availability of grants and tax credits.
Other Issues within the Application:
The Applicant has made two important assertions regarding the presence of mold which in large part was caused by their neglect as noted above. First, ‘remediation will be extraordinarily expensive’ and has no assurance of success. Second, no one will invest in a project that could ‘ultimately be unusable’.
At a public information meeting held on September 27th, two mold experts were invited to address the mold situation. The Applicant’s two mold reports were provided in advance for their review. David Myrick of Valor Mold opined that the mold could be successfully remediated and Craig Minetola of AEG Environmental opined that the use of environmentally safe dry-ice blasting delivered at -100 degrees would kill mold on contact. Ohio State University has found this technique to be 99.9% effective.
Both experts opined that as long as the relative humidity within the building is kept below 60%, mold will not colonize. Mold does not differentiate between old and new buildings. If the building’s HVAC system is improperly controlled, mold will develop in either.
Regarding remediation being an extraordinary expense, AEG provided an estimated cost of $275,000 for dry-ice blasting. Comparatively, under Exhibit N, the Applicant’s 2022 cost for demolition was $615,000. Factoring for inflation and adding missing costs, I believe the total cost is closer to $850,000. In the final analysis, demolition is the extraordinary expense, not mold remediation.
Regarding the lack of investors due to mold, apparently the investment group is not knowledgeable of effective dry-ice blasting and the need to properly operate a building’s HVAC system. If properly remediated with proper mechanical system operation, mold should not be a deterrent to investment.
The application cites flooding as a reoccurring problem and as further justification for demolition. Although the ground floor level is within the floodplain BFE (Base Flood Elevation) by approximately 2 feet, the building is permitted to remain as an historic structure per FEMA’s guidelines. To do so, doors and window openings are required to be protected with flood barrier devices. Another option is to raise the floor level to the required elevation. Both are common practices allowing for the continued use of historic structures in floodplains. The NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program) will provide subsidized insurance for historic buildings in compliance. Opening protective devices should have been installed by the College over their years of ownership. They were not, thus contributing to moisture intrusion.
Under Exhibit O, an appraisal report is available. It notes, ‘no structural problems are evident in the building’ and ‘solid construction’. Based on observations during my walkthrough, I concur. The absence of serious structural problems is a testament to the quality of construction. Minor to moderate issues were found as expected in a building of its age, being both stabilized and repairable. There is no documentation from the College relating to any major structural problems. In my experience, costly structural issues drive justification for demolition, not the presence of hazmats and mold.
Application Section – ‘Responding to the Community’
This all-important section which supposedly addresses community concerns is fraught with unverified statements and completely lacks reference to source documents and reports, identity of individuals making statements and their professional qualifications to do so, and further, transmits false and misleading messaging. For example, it is reported that an unidentified expert found the use of concrete masonry block in the 1931 building basement which could be infiltrated with mold, yet the content fails to include that the block, per my field visit, has been coated with layers of impervious epoxy paint which mold cannot penetrate. It further states that the exterior walls of the original building use a type of brick know as cinder block. As an authority in the field, I can adamantly state that no such brick exists. We are supposed to accept the offered content as justification to demolish a structure listed on the National Historic Register. This is completely unacceptable.
Additional Items for Consideration:
Embodied Carbon Emissions
I request your attention to my current article in the Spy, ‘ Repurposing the Chestertown Armory is Also Good for the Planet’ for a deep dive into this important topic. Renovation and rehab projects emit 50% to 75% less embodied carbon compared to new construction. The American Institute of Architects and other industry voices have acknowledged that the best way to reduce carbon is by recycling buildings. By repurposing the armory, up to 40% of emissions can be saved.
Impact to the Town’s Sewer System
There is no design feasibility study within the application. I presume one would have been done to reach a point of requesting approval to demolish the armory. My concern is impact of the town’s downtown sewer system, primarily the serviceability of the existing components. It appears inevitable that certain components will need upgrading or replacement, including underground sewer lines, manholes and pump or lift stations. The stations are the most costly to upgrade or replace due to the size of pumps and electrical requirements. Large waterproof underground vaults are required to house the equipment and both are expensive.
Based on discussions, research and experience, I anticipate the hotel’s impact on the sewer system will drive significant improvements with correspondingly significant costs. This will be an extraordinary expense that could be offset by the savings realized from repurposing the armory.
My concern with the potential demolition of the armory is that subsequent cancellation of the project could occur due to the sewer system upgrade price tag. Myself and many others do not want to see the useful historic building gone, only to be left with an empty lot. It has happened before. This issue should be included in your purview before a vote to remove the armory.
Finally, the Applicant’s view of the armory can be found within the application. It reads, ‘The Chestertown Armory is not a one-of-a-kind structure’. I do not agree with the College’s sentiment and I am not alone. I was recently contacted by the editorial staff of Preservation Magazine, the publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation regarding possible inclusion of the Chestertown Armory in their Winter 2023/2024 issue. Their question was where would they place it – as a feature or under the ‘threatened and gone’ section. I know my preference, but await yours to pass along to the Trust.
In closing, I appreciate your interest and anticipated consideration to safeguard the architectural heritage of Chestertown by denying the application for complete demolition of the Chestertown Armory. Selective demolition with repurposing of the 1931 portion is my recommendation to satisfy the interests of all parties and to provide a unique hotel deserving of Chestertown.
Feel free to contact me for questions, clarifications or supplemental information.
Thomas Kocubinski, RA