Jim Crow Discovered Alive on Park Row with Architect Peter Newlin

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My wife, Gale Tucker, and I purchased this building on Park Row intending to tear it down. The seller, a bank president, agreed it is slowly collapsing, and all he wanted was the value of the land alone. We owned the property for three years before learning how much it is really worth.

The evidence is obvious. This building has three front doors, but only one of them enjoys the shelter of its spacious porch. What are the other two flanking doors for?

Inside the center door, there’s a foyer, with a door that opens to the rooms on the left, but there’s no door anywhere inside to access the facilities on the right. We have to go outside, on to the porch, and into the rain before we can enter those facilities. How does that make sense?

Architecture is a language about what we dearly want, as well as a means to get it. Yet I failed to understand what the setup meant, even though I’ve spent forty-some years working with historic structures. As a society, we don’t want to recognize our 88 years of Jim Crow segregation, from 1876 soon after the Civil War until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This building was built in 1928, at the top of the Roaring 20s, a time of liberation, at least for us, and not so much for them. As we experience the next four years, it may be helpful to remember who we are capable of being for a full third of the history of our country.

Peter Newlin is the founder at Chesapeake Architects in Chestertown.This video is approximately five minutes in length

Op-Ed: The Gold and the Grit of Town Signage by Peter Newlin

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Editor’s Note:  The author is the architect of the Garfield Center’s lobby and marquee, however the opinions he offers here are his own professional point of view.

There are good reasons for Chestertown to embrace the emerging electronic sign technology given the powers it has to stimulate business, but there are also good reasons to consider restricting it. Programmable signs are capable of assaulting our senses and disrupting neighborhood continuity. On the other hand, our town can set limitations on how they are programmed to prevent both. No one wants to see these signs proliferate out of control, but this essay is not about their merits or liabilities, and not about how we can control them.

This essay is about how Chestertown is being rendered incapable of addressing its business issues by town leaders who are willing to manipulate the permitting process to undermine even the possibility of a fair appraisal of our businesses’ needs. It is about how our town’s permitting behavior is causing the business owners amongst us to lose out, and our marketplaces to become less competitive. Let’s begin with a marketing truth:

Communication Stimulates Commerce

At least, it does when it can be understood. Could it be that one of the reasons the Chester Five Theatres seem depressed is our town won’t let them have the signage they need to communicate their current attractions and upcoming shows?

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The Chester 5 Theatres – are the Movie titles legible?

We, in our cars, struggle to read the string of black plastic letters on the Chester 5’s white panels. Is that the name of one movie, or two movies, or three? Our eyes strain. It’s confusing, boring, ugly, a turn off.

Even when we can read it, a movie’s name doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. So if we haven’t heard of the movie, what is there in this signage to appeal? They cannot tell us anything about the current show (for example, is it rated ‘R’) or what’s coming up next. Is this failure to communicate a consequence of Chestertown’s sign regulations?

Does inadequate signage depress attendance? Does lower attendance reduce revenue? At the Chester Five the answers are writ large in under-investment, for example, in seating that is no longer comfortable. Must we lower our prices to get more bodies into these seats? Shabby depresses revenue, too, as less leads to more less.

Are a Theater’s Needs for More Signage Greater than other Businesses?

Most businesses have only one sign. In fact, Chestertown’s Sign Regulations stipulate: Only “one flat sign per [business] occupancy… is allowed.” But, as we can see, this theater has a large sign which identifies itself as the “Chester 5”, and it also has two other signs, two white boards on which black plastic letters can be hung to spell out the current shows.

How many signs is this shopping center theater allowed? It turns out the number is much higher than any of us could have guessed, but guess we must because for seventeen (17) years Chestertown has not published this theater’s exceptional provisions in its Sign Regulations.

The Garfield Center only learned how many signs a shopping center theater is permitted after the Garfield team had completed their final permitting presentation, and only then because a member of the Planning Commission asked the Zoning Administrator a pointed question:

lI don’t want to put you on the spot, and I’m not sure if this is something you can answer without research, but are there alternatives in terms of a zoning amendment?

The Zoning Administrator replied:

Well, we do have sort of a precedent, I guess you might call it, when the Chester Five Theatres came to Chestertown in 1996 the Planning Commission, Bill Ingersoll at the time, brought up the fact that they had requested marquee signs, that are the same white signs with black lettering that they have at their theater, because obviously you can’t have a theater and not be able to advertise their shows. So the Planning Commission made a positive recommendation.

They held a public meeting and they took it to the Mayor and Council, and the Mayor and Council actually created an ordinance that I didn’t know existed, but in research just this past Friday – because we are in the process of digitizing all of the town’s minutes, the records going back as far as we have records for, so we were able to track down the Planning Commission meeting and subsequently the Mayor and Council meeting and then the ordinance, which for some reason never was codified.

So it doesn’t appear in the ordinances, but it is part of the Zoning Ordinance, that in the C-1 District that type of sign was permitted for the Chester Five, for theaters in general in the C-1 District. At the time that the Mayor and Council were deliberating about this Mabel Mumford asked does this extend to the C-2 District, which is where the theater is – where the Prince Theater at that time was located, and the response was no.

This explanation leaves the clear impression that the Town has in the past created some sort of special exception for this shopping center theater – we have only one. We are told why this special exception was necessary: “because obviously you can’t have a theater and not be able to advertise their shows.”

But the Commissioners could not know how many extra signs this special exception allows or how much this special exception is in support of the Garfield’s proposal due to the fact that it was never published in Chestertown’s Sign Regulations.

Had the Garfield been fairly informed, the Garfield could have drawn telling parallels between its own needs for a sign that can market its current and upcoming shows and the number of additional signs allowed the Chester 5. Depriving the Garfield of such crucial information put this downtown anchor business at an unfair disadvantage.

Only after the hearing was a fait accompli was the Garfield Center able to acquire a copy of this 1996 amendment. The Garfield was quite surprised to find it allows this shopping center theater to have five (5) more signs than any other business in town:

Movie Theatres shall be allowed an additional flat, changeable lettered sign of fifteen (15) square feet for each interior theatre unit, the total square footage of all signs not to exceed the square footage allowed by the linear front footage of the building and to be used for movie titles only.

Our town leaders must know theaters need extra signage, five more signs in this theater’s case, but how are Chestertown’s other businesses to find that out? In the seventeen years of its existence, this regulation hasn’t been published.

More to the point, when the Planning Commission was considering taking their “No Go” stand against the Garfield’s programmable sign, the Commissioners whose role it is to judge the Garfield’s proposal, were not informed about the five (5) additional signs that Chestertown’s Sign Regulations allow the other theater to have, nor was the Garfield team.

How many Signs does a Theater really Need?

At first blush, one might guess it must be the three we see, not counting the paper signs pasted on the glass, which the Sign Regulations allow without permits. By law, five additional signs are allowed because the Chester 5 has, as its name implies, five “interior theater unit[s]”. But note that the text amendment restricts the size of these additional signs to “fifteen (15) square feet” each. The Chester 5’s letter boards are almost three times that size, at about 40 square feet each.

On this issue alone, the Chester 5 cannot be said to be in compliance with the Town’s Sign Regulations, but shouldn’t that be easy to fix now when the town is in the process of amending its Sign Regulations? It would be but for the fact that there are seven other more egregious violations Chestertown would rather we not notice – the seven poster cases marketing current and upcoming shows.

Letter boards are the only type of sign Chestertown’s Regulations will allow this theater to use to promote its shows, and there’s no room on them to tell us what the current show is about, or what’s coming soon. Those needs are being (lamely) addressed by the seven poster cases under the canopy, at the end of the shopping center’s concourse. But these posters are also too small to be read from a car. Worse yet for revenue, there are no pedestrians at this end of the concourse during normal business hours (9 to 5) because there are no stores on this side of the theater entrance. These signs can only be talking to pedestrians who are there to see a current show. More to the point, Chestertown’s Sign Regulations do not permit any of these seven signs, regardless of their purpose. The Chester 5 must choose between promoting its upcoming shows with unpermitted signage, or complying and dying. Responsible government does not leave its businesses in such a lose-lose predicament.

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Seven (7) Poster Cases Marketing Current & Upcoming Shows

 

So the Chester 5 theater has 10 signs in all, of which 9 are in violation of Chestertown’s Sign Regulations. Here is how the reality of what the Chester 5 has installed (to meets its true needs) compares with what Chestertown’s unrealistic Sign Regulations allow:

Note that none of these are new violations, nor is it reasonable to believe our local government can be unaware of so many violations in such a highly visible location. Chestertown’s leaders must be turning a blind eye.

From a marketplace competitiveness point of view, the worst outcome of this permitting behavior is that it deprives the Planning Commission and Town Council of any real understanding the theater’s true needs for signage and of the opportunity to shape regulations that can meet those needs.

Our deciders cannot realize that even though Chestertown has enacted a special amendment to permit the Chester 5 to have five letter boards to promote their current shows, this theater still needs seven (7) more signs to promote its current and upcoming shows. Chestertown’s Sign Regulations are simply too restrictive to allow this theater to thrive. That business truth never gets to the table.

A CLUTTER OF TEN SIGNS THAT CAN BARELY COMMUNICATE

Meanwhile, the Zoning Administrator has instructed the Planning Commission that “To allow the [Garfield Center’s] requested special exception for the[ir] theater alone would most likely violate the uniformity requirement in Section 4-201 of the Maryland Land Use Code…” He does not clarify for the Planning Commission that in 1996 the Mayor & Council did exactly that, carve out a special exception for the new shopping center theater, and there is no mention of this legislation in his written report.

As their minutes reflect, the Planning Commission relied upon the Zoning Administrator’s testimony as a central reason (shown in bold below) to deny the Garfield Center’s programmable sign:

Mr. Watson moved to deny the request for a text amendment for an LED sign on the grounds that it is not legal, as it did not fit with the uniformity act; it violates the Comprehensive Plan; it creates a dangerous precedent regarding LED signage; the 21st century technology does not fit with the historic streetscape in the pedestrian-oriented environment; it is not in an appropriate location, and; it is out of place in the heart of the Historic District.

In truth, carving out a similar exception for the Garfield Center would only bring this downtown theater up to parity with its shopping center cousin, which we now realize is suffering under a regime of unreasonably restrictive sign regulations.

However, the Commission doesn’t know this. It has been left to decide the Garfield’s fate in ignorance of the five additional signs Chestertown’s regulations permit the other theater and the fact that this theater needs, and has been allowed to operate with, many more signs than that.

We cannot know their motivation for condoning so many signs which the Sign Regulations clearly do not allow, but the fact that they have, is conclusive testimony that our Town Officials know their Sign Regulations are out of whack with reality. At least for theaters, Chestertown’s Sign Regulations need a total revamp.

Misinterpreting the Comprehensive Plan

Not disclosing supportive legislation is not the only way Chestertown has undermined the possibility that the Garfield Center’s proposal would get a fair hearing. The Zoning Administrator’s report also abbreviates the Historic Resources goals established in our Town’s Comprehensive Plan. These are principles the town has enacted to govern itself with respect to how its officials and commissions must act to nurture our Historic Marketplace.

In his (verbal and written) report, Chestertown’s Zoning Administrator tells the Planning Commission, a Sign Ordinance text amendment, which would permit the Marquee Signs will fulfill two of the Comprehensive Plan’s General Heritage Goals: to “encourage redevelopment that is sympathetic with the character of historic Chestertown,” and “protect the authenticity of Chestertown’s historic resources” but he omits key words in each Goal, which change their meaning. Here are these two General Heritage Goals in full, with the missing text shown in bold:

Encourage design of new structures and redevelopment that is sympathetic with the character of historic Chestertown.

Encourage businesses and activities that protect the authenticity of Chestertown’s historic resources.

The missing words are key to understanding how the Comprehensive Plan intends we protect our “Heritage”, as the first goal directs our town authorities to actively encourage the “design of new structures” such as the Garfield’s proposed screen, and the second goal calls for our town authorities to “encourage businesses and activities” capable of sustaining Chestertown’s historic resources, such as the Garfield Center itself.

It could be he does not quote these principles in full because, by omitting key words, the meaning of each goal is sufficiently altered so that the Zoning Administrator can claim the Garfield’s proposed programmable screen violates the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, when in truth the opposite can be argued that in different ways, each calls for the Planning Commission (who authored these principles) to help the Garfield Center acquire more effective signage. At a minimum, we can be sure the Town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for our Commissions and our Town Council to find ways it can support the Garfield Center’s viability. Helping the Garfield Center acquire efficacious signage is the best opportunity at hand.

Here again, if the Zoning Administrator had shared his report with the Commission and Garfield Center in advance, these points could have been debated – resulting in a fair hearing of the issues, productive at finding long term answers to these complex issues.

Gold and Grit

But as it now stands, the Planning Commission has recommended we ban every type of electronic sign, including any screen inside a store within six feet of a display window or door. The Town Council has scheduled a public hearing on that ban for 7 PM Monday, August 19.

As explained below, some of Chestertown’s leaders have been managing our town’s permitting hearings from the outset to achieve such a total ban. We can suppose they believe in their hearts they know what is best for Chestertown, and therefore they believe they are justified in taking all measures to secure the outcome they are positive is absolutely right for us all, including partisan tactics.

The trouble with such an assertive attitude is, the opposition may believe just as earnestly in their “right” outcome, and the fight that then ensues destroys all possibility of win-win. Everyone loses, because no one can trust Chestertown is maintaining a process capable of coming to grips with real business needs and the merits of the alternatives for meeting them. Without true transparency, no reasonable compromise is possible.

That is where we are with Chestertown’s government. It isn’t that our officials intend dishonesty, but that they have lost sight of their most fundamental duty to maintain a level playing field for all concerned. As a consequence, our institutions and businesses cannot trust there is wisdom or equity in Chestertown’s permitting processes.

I am hoping this essay can be “a panning of Chestertown’s permitting flow” not only to bring to light behaviors we can agree not to tolerate in our town government, but also to illuminate the lessons which our theaters’ permitting experiences have for us all about our theaters’ true needs for effective signage, and how the various parties involved can cooperate to help our theaters thrive – the Gold and the Grit.

The Gold 

By “Gold” I mean the nuggets of insight which the Garfield’s travail has brought to light. Most of this gold is not sufficiently refined that it can be immediately used, but it is ore we can work with to enrich our future. For example, in our consideration of the Chester Five, there are some truths glittering:

GOLD – Almost two decades ago our Town Council recognized that theaters do indeed have extraordinary needs for signage and therefore they changed their Sign Regulations to permit the only theater in C1 Commercial zoning to have many more signs than any other business.  What they did for our shopping-center theater back then, they can surely do now for our historic theater downtown.  And, if they honestly want the Garfield Center to thrive, they will.

GOLD – The letter board signs permitted as a special exception for C1 theater(s) are too limited to market the shows that are coming up next.  By allowing this theater to operate with seven (7) signs beyond what the Town’s Sign Regulations allow, our Town Leaders are “testifying” they know this theater needs these seven (7) prohibited signs to market their upcoming shows.  For internal reasons, they don’t want to share that understanding with the deciders and public.

GOLD – The Chester 5’s poster cases are only used to inform those who are headed into the theater. How do we know that?  There are no stores to attract pedestrians over to the poster-case side of the theater’s ticketing booth.  It is only the moviegoers who can see these signs.  Theaters need signage to market their upcoming events especially to the folks who are coming to a current show.

GOLD – It is doubtful the Zoning Administrator realized his omissions of fact would so greatly mislead the Planning Commission. However, the only fix for such unfair treatment is a redo of the Garfield’s hearing.  Down the road, we can all look back at this incident and say it teaches us of why government has an overarching duty to maintain a level playing field, on which all private interests can compete fairly, and their proposals be scrutinized on their merits, so our community’s best initiatives will prevail.

GOLD – The Chester 5 is operating with ten signs installed, but the only one that is effective is the name of the business.  For theaters, “effective” means good at communicating information which will attract a crowd to come see the show.  The letter boards allowed by Chestertown’s Sign Regulations are not effective because all they can do is spell out the show’s name.  There is no way they can tell what it’s about, and in any case, the letter boards allowed the Chester 5 are too small to be easily read.

Likewise, their posters are too small to be easily read, perhaps because they are only being allowed as violations of the sign regulations “we haven’t noticed”.  The Chester 5 is in great need of signage that can effectively market its offerings.  Until it gets that it will suffer, and its suffering is a drag on every other business nearby. Theaters can be a powerful draw, but not without marketing prowess.

GOLD – Our Sign Regulations for theaters need a total overhaul, and by an independent committee which includes business owners, designers and preservationists, with a representative of the town’s regulatory interests acting as advisory staff.

The Grit

By “Grit” I don’t so much mean the improper behavior itself, but rather how such behavior gets into the gears of business to disrupt our marketplace competitiveness. If we understand how this grit is damaging us, we can act to avoid it. Here is what our look at the Chester 5 can have taught us:

Grit – When a local government doesn’t publish its rules, its officers are free to administer as they see fit. Outsiders can not tell if they are being treated justly. No complaint can be filed. No argument advanced that I should be allowed the same as the other fellow. The process of adjusting regulations to emerging business realities grinds to a halt, because no one can know what is true.

Grit – A business can never be sure that it will not lose what has been illicitly allowed. For example, a new Zoning Administrator may suddenly crack down. If we are told we can erect signs we know are prohibited, it is prudent to put up smaller and cheaper ones even if more expansive signage could do a much better job of attracting customers. We don’t want to call attention to our sign violations. Uncertainty is always a drag on business investment.

Grit – More problematic, when any government official allows a business to ignore an ordinance, that official, as a broker of privileges, gains power over the business owner. The business owner cannot thereafter share with other government leaders what sorts of regulatory freedom his business truly needs to thrive, without at the same time confessing to having colluded to acquire what is prohibited. As is the case for the Garfield Center, the business truth cannot not reach the deciders, they decide in ignorance, and that is bad for business.

Grit -When officials do not openly share with the citizen commissioners all that is relevant to a decision that the Commissioners must make, staff are putting a fat finger on the scales of justice to achieve an outcome which a fuller consideration of the truth might not justify. Capitalism and democracy both require fair and open competition if we are to benefit as a community, and not just the insiders.

Grit -Given that the Zoning Administrator’s report to the Planning Commission 1) is a published attachment to their meeting minutes; 2) was not shared with any of the parties in advance; 3) was scheduled by the Planning Commission to be given only after the Garfield Center had presented their proposals; 4) provides the Planning Commission with incomplete (and therefore misleading) quotations of the Historic Resources goals in our Comprehensive Plan; 5) which the Planning Commission’s motion to deny relies upon as a prime reason for denial, the Town Council must now offer the Garfield Center a re-do hearing before the Planning Commission, if the Town Council wants to avoid the appearance of operating a kangaroo court.

On top of that, the Town’s permitting process has already cost the Garfield Center tens of thousands of dollars – funds which this non-profit could otherwise have put into programs which nurture our community and stimulate our historic marketplace.

Going Forward

Are our town officials going to throw out this Gold and generate more Grit just to simplify their political lives, as they watch our marketplaces loose competitiveness? Or are they leaders willing to help us go forward, willing to create a thoughtful process to take up the challenges of understanding what our businesses truly need, and of managing emerging sign technology as we inevitably must if we are ever going to reap its benefits? How they decide could set Chestertown in a pattern that will last decades. Are we a can-do community ready and willing to collaboratively meet the many challenges sure to come our way?

Two Contrasting Visions: An Architect’s Perspective

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Editor’s Note:  The author is the architect of the Garfield Center’s lobby and marquee, however the opinions he offers here are his own professional point of view.

VISION I – The Historic District’s Living Town – As Enacted

Those who oppose the Garfield Center’s programmable LED screen have found their champion in the Planning Commission.  Chestertown’s Planning Commission has answered the Historic District Commission’s “Yes we can!” with a resounding “No, you can not!”  The Town Council will ultimately decide.

It’s healthy for Chestertown, that we debate contrasting visions of what our future should be.  But which one is right for our community?  One side is willing to embrace the capabilities of an emerging technology, believing if we are judicious, we can harness its strengths to the benefit of our historic town. The other side fears there is no way to control these capabilities.  They will ruin the historic atmosphere we all cherish, and undermine our appeal to tourism dollars. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at both of these visions, and at their underpinnings in Chestertown’s law.

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At issue is the black rectangle we can see above the two doors. The Garfield Center has proposed to install a programmable LED display there, every bit as colorful as the Hollywood posters which originally occupied this space.  Chestertown’s Historic District Commission (HDC) agrees that is appropriate.  The Planning Commission says it is not.  Many on both sides passionately believe, whether the Town Council decides to go forward with this sign or not, that decision will have long term affects on the character of Chestertown, and the viability of our Historic Marketplace.

Programmable screens, also called LED displays, are a new sign technology with powerful communications capability.  Like our television screens, they can just as easily display the sweep and serenity of a national park landscape, or the cacophony of a car crash.  The ‘definitely-nots’ fear that range in capability, saying no one can control it.  The ‘yes-we-cans’ point out the screen only displays what the owner programs his computer to have it show.  If the screen is high resolution and the owner motivated to communicate respectfully, then the screen will behave as a good citizen should, and stay within any limitations the community sets.

Rehabilitating the Marquee

The Garfield began its permitting odyssey in 2010, almost three years ago, as part of its rehabilitation of the lobby.  With HDC and Maryland Historical Trust approval, workmen removed the three 1960’s commercial doors (seen below), and demolished the letter board sign above them.  Shortly after that, the HDC gave approval for the old marquee to be removed to a shop in Ohio for refurbishing.

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The marquee languished when it was discovered that the theater’s roof was leaking.  The re-roofing donor asked the theater’s architect to investigate.  A structural engineer found the old roof trusses inadequate to support the heavy snow drifts an extreme storm could pile up.  Then it was discovered that the ruddy tiles at the top of the façade weren’t terracotta as they seemed from the street, but rusting sheet metal with so many holes that the cornice below them was rotting.  The job was much more urgent and complex than initially anticipated.

The Garfield team finally brought its plans for the marquee’s revival to the HDC in June of 2012.  Those plans could have proposed to restore the marquee, but the Garfield Center had chosen historic rehabilitation instead.

Many people think the HDC’s primary job is to say no to change, but Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning more broadly charges them with nurturing the vitality of our Historic District:

The purpose of this Historic Areas Zoning shall be to safeguard the heritage of the municipal corporation by preserving   the district therein which reflects elements of its cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history; to stabilize and improve property values in such a district; to foster civic beauty; to strengthen the local economy; and to promote the use and preservation of Historic Districts for the education, welfare and pleasure of the residents of the county or of the municipal corporation.

As can be seen by the emphasis added, Chestertown’s zoning law charges the HDC with promoting the economic wellbeing of the Historic District, as well as ensuring that its historic assets are not lost.  Their responsibility for economics is nowhere more important than in managing the vitality of our Historic Marketplace, at the heart of which we find the Garfield Center for the Arts.

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The Era of Momentous Change 

The economics of this theater were running in its favor during the first era of its existence (1930s & 40s) which we could call the “Era of the Hollywood Poster,” as that form of signage prevailed.   But, we could just as well call it the “Era of the Automobile” or the “Era of Electrification” or the “Era of Bright Lights”, as the horse was giving way to the horseless carriage, roads were being paved, electric wires jumping from building to building, and street lights erected.  At the time, many people were likely thrilled by this groundswell of “progress”, while others felt threatened by change.  What matters is, all of these developments occurred within Chestertown’s “Period of Historic Significance”, 1706 – 1939, albeit toward the end.

Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning tells the HDC it must protect our heritage of every era within those dates, the artifacts and attitude of the Roaring Twenties, along with everything more staid from previous eras, much of which the Roaring Twenties was rebelling against.   In other words, they must preserve the authenticity of the differences we have inherited from our diverse “cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history”.

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When the “New Lyceum” (as this theater was originally named) was designed, theaters almost universally featured marquees as their gateways to entertainment, and almost all of these sported lights aplenty. The marquee’s electrification is part and parcel of the momentous change dominating all spheres of culture and commerce back then.

Why Businesses need Rehabilitation

By the 1970s the downtown theater business had gone bust, which is essentially why this elegant Renaissance Revival building has ended up in the hands of a not-for-profit. The Garfield Center has no museum aspirations, and every need to make itself financially viable.  They needed their lobby back, not in its original glory, but as an efficient generator of revenue streams:  ticketing, workspace for volunteers, concessions, and as an independent rentable venue itself.  The Garfield chose Historic Rehabilitation as their path forward.

At the National Park Service, the scholars at the top of our nation’s preservation hierarchy explain:

Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.

As a case in point, the Maryland Historical Trust, which oversaw a $100,000 preservation grant and approved the Garfield’s lobby rehabilitation plans, had no problem with building a bar where the original doorways to the auditorium still stand, as long as all aspects of these doorways are preserved.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.11.36 AMAs historic preservation professionals, MHT understands concessions are an important profit center for any theater.  They agreed the counter and cabinetry could be built around one of the three doorway jambs (as you can see has been done in the photo above) provided there is no loss of historic materials.  The historic jamb (on the right above) must all be there, if the concessions cabinetry is ever removed.

What is important here is that a proper restoration returns a structure to its original configuration at some target date(s), 1928 for example.  Rehabilitations are obliged to preserve all historic features intact, but beyond that they can intermingle new features to make the structure more functional, including to achieve business purposes.  Rehabilitations are not obligated to reconstruct historic features which no longer exist, regardless of how certain the evidence is of what had been there.  As can be imagined, commercial property owners choose historic rehabilitation as their path forward, because as a preservation strategy, it allows the addition of contemporary features to make their facilities economically viable.  The National Park Service puts it this way:

Of the four treatments [allowed], only Rehabilitation includes an opportunity to make possible an efficient contemporary use through alterations and additions.

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In its marquee rehabilitation, the Garfield Center proposed the following contemporary (2012) features:

        • The LED lights on the beams are pear-shaped like the originals, but frosted.
        • The Art Glass (in the reproduction pendants) fulfills a 2012 color scheme.
        • The ceiling’s globe-shaped LEDs are arranged in a 2012 pattern.
        • The Coffered Ceiling is of contemporary 2012 design.
        • The doors and door framing are likewise new.

Chestertown’s Historic District Commission unanimously approved them all.

For example, the Garfield team brought a wired socket and samples of both types of LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs to the HDC’s hearing to be sure everyone understood what they were exactly, and explained that such bulbs use only one tenth of the electricity that conventional incandescent lights consume.  After the HDC had seen these bulbs illuminated, they agreed energy efficient lights are appropriate in this specific historic context.

Change is Inevitable

People sometimes think the HDC can require them to restore their historic building, for example, to remove old features, which may have existed for decades, but aren’t historically appropriate.  However, the Town’s Historic Areas Zoning doesn’t give them that power.  For example, the Garfield Center had the right to keep the pair of 2 x 4 fluorescent office light fixtures if it wanted to, along with the ceiling’s barn-roofing finish.  Historic rehabilitation protects the historic material that still exists.  Beyond that, an owner can leave existing discordant features in place, and add new ones, as long as the outcome is doing no harm to its historic context.

In its statement of “Purpose”, Chestertown’s Historic District Design Guidelines explains:

These guidelines provide the Historic District Commission (HDC) and property owners with guidance on appropriate methods for the upkeep and rehabilitation of the town’s historic buildings. They also assist in the design of new construction in the historic district, whether these are additions to existing structures or entirely new buildings.  The guidelines do not seek to prevent change.  Change is inevitable in any living town, and these guidelines are aimed at ensuring that change is appropriate to Chestertowns unique character. The HDC uses the Historic District Design Guidelines and applies the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole.  <Emphasis added>

The emphasized text is a strong statement of our town’s vision of how Chestertown’s Historic District can evolve, and it is enacted law.  We will see later the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan also welcomes new structures, although the Zoning Administrator and Planning Commission are arguing in the case of LED signs, it should not.

Note that the HDC must use the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation (for updating a structure) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Preservation (which does not allow any new features) and not the Secretary’s Standards for Restoration (the museum approach for returning to a historic appearance).  Note also that the HDC is to apply these Rehabilitation Standards “to evaluate the appropriateness of changes to a building and to the Historic District as a whole.

The Shock of Stam Hall

Has the Historic District changed much since its 18th Century origins?  It may help to recognize that the New Lyceum was built toward the end of Chestertown’s Period of Historic Significance (1706–1939), on the block of High Street which is most urban.  It was wedged between Stam Hall (1886), one of the town’s most massive buildings, and the three-story porch of the Imperial Hotel (1909).

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Stam Hall (pictured above) was built at the end of one of the Eastern Shore’s boom periods, when canning was king and steamships plied the rivers delivering farm and orchard bounty to the hungry urban areas, growing, growing across the Bay.  Stam Hall interjects French Second Empire urbanism smack in the middle of this English 18th  century seaport.  But as an intrusion, it is not alone.  A “movable bridge” enabled traffic to cross the Chester River as early as 1821, followed by a timber bridge some decades later, and the Railroad arrived in 1902.

Mr. Stam, whose drug store occupied the ground story, was quite the entrepreneur.  He must have wanted to boost Chestertown beyond its 18th C. roots, as his building portrays itself as a center for 19th C. growth and renewal.  But in the 1880s, a peach blight stalled Chestertown’s economy, and that was followed by a series of recessions in 1887, 1890, and 1893.  Like the rest of the country, Chestertown didn’t boom again until after the (1919-1920) depression which followed the First World War.  Then came the Roaring Twenties, our Renaissance Revival theater, and its electrified marquee.

As disruptive as these structures must have seemed, the automobile is surely the most disruptive of all.  As we can see in the picture above, they are everywhere.  Each vehicle is operated without any historic restrictions, and some by chicken-neckers like me.  As a community, we do not feel compelled to write regulations that require we move about after dusk with only our parking lights on.  I’m not arguing against regulation, only trying to make two simple points:   #1:  We human beings are quite capable of adapting to change.  And #2:  Even as disruptive as it is, the car has not killed our Historic District’s appeal.

Why Strict and Why Lenient

At best, government can nurture the growth initiated by property owners, being careful to guide it, without over-controlling.  Chestertown’s Historic Areas Zoning puts it this way:

The Commission shall be strict in its judgment of plans for those structures deemed to be valuable … [and] lenient in its judgment of plans … involving new construction, unless such plans would seriously impair the historical or architectural integrity of the surrounding area.

Requiring leniency may seem counterintuitive, and indeed some preservationists want to take an authoritarian stand against anything that could possibly vitiate the purity of the historic district, but they are forgetting a formative truth.  The historic district they want to protect from what our current culture and economics would do – this precious historic district is itself a product of decades and decades of unregulated change, driven by all sorts of cultural and economic impulses, with nary a preservationist hand on the tiller.

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There is nothing in the Historic Rehabilitation Standards which empowers the HDC to reject new features just because they do not like them.  The closest such Standards are:

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property.  The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

In short, Standard 9 requires new features be compatible with their historic context, and observably new.  Standard 10 recognizes new features will come and go, and we want our heritage whole when they go.  The HDC has judged that the Garfield’s screen meets these Standards.

To Sieve or Not to Sieve

Often what is of greatest value about any era, is controversial when coming into being, Art Nouveau, for example, is the source of the pejorative word ‘gaudy’ but Barcelona’s appeal and financial wellbeing owe a considerable debt to the creativity of their native son, a “Modernista” named Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), and so does the rest of the world for his work and that of his compatriots.  The era is variously known as Art Nouveau, De Stÿl, Jugendstil, Stile Liberty, Modernisme, and in America, as Arts & Crafts.  It spans from 1890-1910 worldwide, but as mentioned, Chestertown was in an economic slump back then, so we have precious little of its influence here.

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We do have one derivative of California Arts and Crafts (pictured above) standing at 311 Washington Avenue.  It was likely ordered from a catalog, an innovation in marketing which carried Sears & Roebuck to dominance in the 20th Century.  Their catalogs sold whole houses, as well as everything in them.  This house came to Chestertown in boxes by train, the dominant form of transportation back then.  Our railroad tracks are gone now, and catalogs no longer dominate marketing, but this house still stands as an artifact of their economic reach, despite the round river stone being foreign to our geological heritage.  Were these technologies disruptive?  For local architecture and business, absolutely!  But is it wise of government to prohibit for the sake of purity?

If we put ourselves in the place of our grandchildren, won’t we want Chestertown to reflect “the elements of its cultural, social, economic, political [and] architectural history” from our own era?  As a “Living Town” do we really want our government putting our present and future through a sieve of the past?

For forty years I am proud to call myself a preservationist, but much more so because at the national level, and in Chestertown’s Historic Areas law, there is the wisdom and humility to restrict change only when it would destroy historic fabric, and never in an effort to stop innovation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1002-2013 2 VISIONS – PART 1 FOR PUB 2

 

 

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