I have been a resident of the historic district of Chestertown for almost fifteen years, the past three years full-time. Chestertown is my only home. It was place that brought me to the Chester River and this historic district in our small town. I vote here, and I answer the summons for jury duty when it arrives in my mail box. I have been a grunt soldier, a clerk, a Congressional staffer, worked in corporate America, and led a nonprofit legal services organization representing LGBTQ service members in our armed forces. I served on corporate and nonprofit boards. I have no credentials or expertise in historic preservation and design, but I can navigate commission and board guidelines and zoning regulations fairly well with eyes wide open.
What little I know about design and architecture I learned from the renowned architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. Mr. Jacobsen and I once shared a common brick wall in Washington — his imposing Federal abutting my modest English style cottage. He guided me in adding 300 square feet to my home and small garden.
Hugh Jacobsen began his projects with enthusiasm and high hopes, but invariably his starting point was place, asking if what the client wanted to erect was suitable to the site. Hugh Jacobsen not only walked the grounds where he was building, he sometimes visited there for days or longer, sitting on the site grounds and fields, and he talked with neighbors nearby. And he did all this before he began drawing. There are hundreds of his marvelous houses. And every Hugh Jacobsen building fits where he placed it — a farm house in Maine, homes on our Maryland Eastern Shore –Easton, Oxford, and Trappe — Maryland University library, an addition to the U.S. Capitol, or a new structure on the nation’s mall.
Place, context, and simplicity. Now take a look at the website of Hammond Wilson in Annapolis, the firm engaged by the 206 applicants. On their website you see the firm’s best work, the quality houses they showcase around Annapolis. An even closer examination and you may notice that the very drawings this firm initially submitted for 206 Cannon bear an uncanny resemblance to one of the houses on the Hammond Wilson website. It’s a rather large house placed in a snug and comfortable planned community with other equally large houses, and those well-built fine houses in all their pleasant sameness strike me as perfectly suited for the place.
But can Hammond Wilson and the 206 applicants possibly think they can just modify a house from a nice very upscale development and expect that house will somehow fit in the Chestertown historic district? Unfortunately, the applicants and their architects still think they can pretty much build whatever they would like at 206. And they continue to demonstrate how they approach 206. Site is not important.
Yes, the owners have a right to build a new residential home there, but it is not an ABSOLUTE right. The new owners knew they were buying land in the historic district, and they should have known they would need to gain approval before building. Surely their architects understood that was the case. The fact that the 206 application is still pending before the HDC further underscores that there is no absolute right here.
It is unfortunate this application process got off on the wrong footing from the get go with the HDC, with the best of intentions no doubt, attempting to tweak and retweak the drawings to turn the proposed house into one both parties could accept. What is now needed is a time out with the HDC making clear to the architect that their development application is unacceptable and unsuitable for the 206 site.
It’s time to pivot. Ask the applicant to come back in 180 days with a new set of plans that acknowledges and respects the place where they would like to build and live. It’s time to say plainly a house of that scale, designed for a private and lovely community development, is not suitable for the Chestertown historic district. It doesn’t fit.
We in Chestertown, as caretakers, have an obligation to preserve the evidence of our past — the historic, the beautiful, the good and sometimes the ugly. Our town leaders and the HDC play a huge role in meeting that responsibility.
I appreciate the applicants are in a hurry for a resolution. They have already spent considerable time and money. The HDC, however, should not rush. We continue to learn more about this important site, and much more critical research is clearly in order; and research work about to get underway by the Maryland Historic Trust may reveal more.. If the applicants will not agree to a carryover and insist upon a vote, the HDC need only look to their guidelines, rules, and discretion. Clearly, the HDC has the authority to deny the pending application.
I am not opposed to new residential construction at 206 Cannon. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the applicants and learn more about their vision for living on this vacant lot. Some of the neighbors living less than forty yards from 206 have expressed an interest in doing the very same.
The Annapolis firm knows Chestertown. They have done several commercial renovations in and on existing structures in the historic district, nearly all of which I appreciate and patronize. But this is not another renovation project in an existing building with expansion in the rear. This is new construction on a special site that needs care, more deliberation, and a very different mindset with respect to site.
A pivot here might also begin with all of us being more civil and respectful to each other. We need not be small or mean-spirited or disagreeable simply because we disagree on what the law and guidelines require. I would welcome a compromise and resolution that recognizes and protects our historic district and enables the applicants to become a part of our community. Compromise can help make our town and Historic District Commission stronger, and it can signal that we welcome those who want to be a part of this historic and special place.