After more than 10 years of a bumpy, disjointed process, the point is nearing when a decision to convert and renovate the historic Chestertown Armory into a hotel and conference center ought to be made. The time has arrived to overcome opposition and move forward.
The destructive mold infestation is real. Even if removed, it could easily reappear in a structure built on a flood plain facing Chester River. Without demolition of the newer part of the iconic armory, no hotel developer and investors would be willing to assume the risk of building where mold was prevalent.
My support of a hotel, which would include the historic front portion, comes with some sadness. During my career in the Maryland National Guard, I knew that this armory served as a staging area during World War II for citizen-soldiers from Kent and Queen Anne’s counties deployed eventually to Europe and the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
I worked with the late Lt. Gen. (MD) James F. Fretterd, the former adjutant general of Maryland, to obtain state funds to renovate the armory. Despite our efforts, I believe that developers Jay Shah and Keith Coe, representing Hersha Hospitality Trust, supported by the president of Washington College (WC)—which owns the building– Mike Sosulski, intend to build a hotel/conference center that would benefit WC and its visitors, as well as Chestertown residents and tourists.
I am convinced that the developers will respect the armory’s history by paying homage to those who served in the Guard and the 29th Infantry Division (Blue and Gray). In last week’s Spy interviews with Sosulski, Shah and Coe, the latter clearly said that the interior design of the hotel would display relics of the Guard’s illustrious past.
An open letter to the Chestertown Historic District CHC) by Philip Hoon, a local attorney, calls for a decision based “on the rule of law, not of popular opinion or institutional convenience.” Demolition issues in historic districts often attract emotional resistance.
Residents fear change despite obvious benefit to the college and its public outreach—and to the town devoid of a first-class hotel. Its owner would be sensitive to the role played by its National Guard occupants during the war against Nazi Germany. Like armories throughout Maryland, the Chestertown Armory served as a community center. A new hotel could serve the same purpose.
Names like Sergeant First Class John H. Newnam and 1st Sergeant Edward Ringgold Elburn deserve continued respect and remembrance, as they adorn the names, respectively, of the armory and drill floor.
The former Guard armories in Centreville, Denton and Cambridge epitomize repurposing at its creative best. Now the home of Wye River Upper School, the Centreville armory retained the infrastructure while employing thoughtful architecture to embody a school. The redo is impressive.
The Denton armory also converted its interior (except the drill floor ideal for athletics) into space for the Caroline County Department of Recreation. The renovation enabled the armory to remain part of the community. True also of the Centreville structure.
The Cambridge Armory is the site now of the Dorchester District Court.
The nexus between preservation and redevelopment is an imperfect one. It requires compromise. When the good outweighs the bad, then it makes sense. That is true here.
A fixation in this case on the pervasive mold and its possible remediation ignores the uncertain, if not improbable outcome. The risk is too great for any responsible developer and investors.
And Hersha is determined to preserve the armory’s history. Should the opponents succeed in blocking the project, Chestertown will be the loser. A first-class hotel will exist only as an illusory vision.
The Nike slogan comes to mind. “Just Do It.”
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.