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July 17, 2009

Save Historic Preservation

Roy Meachum

Since moving up from Bethesda, 26 years ago, I have lived in old houses. I'm grateful for the things accomplished by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and its predecessor, the Historic District Commission (HDC). But given the vacancy created by half the panel resigning, Mayor Jeff Holtzinger should reform the panel's mission. Its decisions can be absurd.


The change in name from Historic District Commission, I suspect, had everything to do with broadening authority from downtown to other neighborhoods. And that was a bad mistake, proved by a referendum's very negative rejection. It seems to me that, by whatever name, the commission has been reaching for more and more power.


The first hint came years ago, when friends on West Third Street were forbidden to remove paint from the house's bricks, seemingly because the building has "always" been painted; it did not go up until some 20 years after the Civil War, for goodness sake! Using the same authority the panel approved my neighbor changing the bricks' color to a startling electric blue-gray. Go figure.


The current rhubarb started when the commission ordered the new Volt's Restaurant to restore and keep the building's name when the partners bought it. Built by sisters as their home, the Victorian manse was sold after their death and became offices for physicians and dentists. Arbitrary and capricious seem apt words for the preservation panel's insistence the restaurant restore in glass above the door: The Professional Building. A name that appeared years after its construction.


Will they apply the same standard to a place across North Market from Volt's that advertises on the glass: H&R Block's? They already goofed next door when Portobello Road antiques' store became Studio 11 photographer's shop. Where does this stop?


Looking over Frederick, I was first impressed by the valiant efforts to keep what was here, instead of scooping out buildings to save on tax bills. That's why I moved here.


My first Frederick home sits as 107 East Fourth Street; it was the newest, built around 1884. The HDC's jurisdiction stopped with what could be seen from the sidewalk. It extended no farther; the back of the building was floating in the wind, not part of the Historic District.


Circa 1845, the old farmhouse was up at 823 North Market Street and free of any constraining rules, which made it possible to enclose the sagging back porch, in 1987. The commission has since extended its rule to include all of historic buildings.


These days Pushkin and I start our daily promenades from a house that, in part, may predate the American Revolution. Some point well before the Civil War, somebody bought the property's log house that still contains a cooking fireplace and a ladder-well to reach the room above the kitchen. Two parlors and three bedrooms were added on the second floor, and stairs. The whole structure was then encased in brick, which means some of the walls are more than a foot thick. Beside the front door are both Frederick County Landmark and National Register plaques. In other words, since becoming a Frederick resident, I have a very vested interest in preserving what was.


When we moved to this house, there was a supermarket on North Market Street's other side, which went up well before people respected older structures. The city bought the vacated store and Mayor Jim Grimes attempted to install another grocery outlet; that went bottom up too. After him, new Mayor Jennifer Dougherty proceeded to "prove" her predecessor had wasted taxpayers' money by selling, at considerable loss, properties obtained by Mr. Grimes.


Despite local businessmen's interest, she sold the former supermarket to one of Washington's biggest developers, with hundreds of properties in his portfolio. Douglas Jemal went on to build a modern and functional building. Since this is the Historic District, I have sometimes wondered how he got plans approved. The Douglas Development property has never rented, and sits there, falling apart – a hollow echo of Ms. Dougherty's speeches about revitalizing Frederick's north side.


Faced with a world recession, there's no wonder Mayor Holtzinger attempts to shield the restaurant from petty bureaucratic "bushwa" – to use a Louisiana word. Not many local establishments can afford $500-a-day in penalties. Of course, Volt's could always paint in the previous name. Saluting the Historic Preservation Commission, some people say they must obey – that’s the same argument used by Nazis after World War II: they were only following orders.


Mr. Holtzinger and the Board of Aldermen have the capability to appoint new HPC members and shift the panel away from dumb decisions that make no sense, to anyone! There is no real choice.


History is history, and then we have goofs – made in its name.


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