In my view, Chestertown’s self-designated Historic District is precious, fragile and profound, just as is its designation by the US Department of the Interior as one of only three Maryland towns with the most prestigious National Historic Register District status. (The other two are Annapolis and St. Mary’s City.)
Likewise, it has been reported that the Armory has an individual National Historic Register designation. (So does Mt. Vernon.) In short, like prior generations, we are now the stewards of those important and special honors and privileges.
To that end, we should and must be very careful, informed and enlightened in addressing Washington College’s proposal to demolish the Armory, as a matter of fact and the pesky rule of law.
I am among the many who were disturbed to learn of the college’s disappointing and virtually clandestine effort (not a good thing for the already lacking college/town relations) for demolition without appropriate disclosure, procedure and due process. Fortunately, a legally appropriate “do over” is scheduled for December. In the meantime, there are some relevant considerations that may have been overlooked.
The support for the demolition is essentially two-fold: that the building is “ugly”, and that a luxury waterfront hotel on the site is in the offing. That might be wishful, and uninformed, thinking. Here is why . . .
The state conveyed the Armory to the town in 2012. The deed imposed two restrictive covenants on the property. The restrictions are in perpetuity so they measure the college’s use and development of the property (the town conveyed it to the college in 2013) and the same for future owners.
Those restrictions are that “the property shall be used solely for governmental and/or educational purposes” which are “defined as (a) government business and/or offices; and/or (b) college and/or university uses.”
There are several important factual caveats and legal considerations relating to the restrictive covenants. They include that the covenants specifically relate to the use, and not the ownership, of the property.
In addition, the covenants are enforceable by the state, the town and the public, so that they are not easily discarded. With respect to the rights of the public, it may be that any Historic District citizen and/or property owner has legal standing and can sue to enforce the covenants.
I am of the middle ground on the Armory. That is, I think that there may be a large portion of the building that can and should be demolished if it so polluted that it cannot be remediated (if and when that conclusion is properly reached with legally sufficient testimony and evidence).
But with deference to the important historic designations mentioned above, I am in favor of preserving the façade of the building. That includes the two front wings that appear to be about 50ˈ deep.
If the college makes an effort to find them, I believe that there are qualified architects who are capable of an adaptive design of an essentially new structure with the preserved façade and front wings.
Of course, if the college does not want to comply with the restrictive covenants, it is free to sell the property to someone who will.
In the meantime, it is not unreasonable to hope, and expect, that the college will truly be a team player with all of the other Historic District property owners who are the inter vivos custodians of the preservation of Chestertown’s precious legacy, and with a shared community spirit in the best interests of the past, present and future of the town and the college.
Philip W. Hoon