State Historical Trust told that public display of history with remnants of Birely Tannery adequate preservation for hotel site

The hotel developer’s archeology submission to the Maryland Historical Trust concludes that the building could be demolished on condition that “loss of the (historic) resource” be mitigated by “robust public outreach” suggesting: (1) production of a pamphlet on the history of tanneries in Frederick, (2) public and professional lectures on the importance of the site to the early history of Frederick, and (3) historic displays on tanning, staged in public spaces of the proposed hotel complex.

The report by archeologist Mechelle Kerns is one of two professional reports commissioned by developer Plamondon for the City-sponsored hotel. Cost of the consulting work contracted with Kann Partners of Baltimore is to be shared two thirds by Plamondon, one-third by the City, according to the December 2015 agreement (MOU) between the two.

archeologist Mechelle Kerns

At issue in what is known as a Section 106 regulatory process is whether the Birely Tannery building and its site (denoted 18FR575) is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  The earlier report on the history of the building by Mimi Giguere also concluded that it was not eligible. For major state funding of the project to flow to the project as presently configured — with the prominent tannery building demolished to make way for basement car parking and conference center ‘ballrooms’ above — the MHT needs to agree with the submissions that the property is not Eligible. The MHT may accept the submission, reject it, or suggest a compromise.

Although in her conclusion Kerns goes along with the proposed demolition her report provides plenty of material making  the case for preservation. From the cover of the 144 page report almost to the end she  paints a picture of the tannery as an important establishment of a business going back to the early 1800s. Kerns writes that “the tannery was in operation from 1819 to 1924, then operated a leather finisher and retailer until 1955…”

That would make it the longest operating leather business in Frederick, one of the earliest to begin and the last to close.  Plus it is the last remaining building associated with tanning in Frederick. Kerns suggests it is possible there was tanning done on the general site before 1819, the year the Elizabeth Birely (1768-1828) acquired the lot on which the building stands. She was the widow of Frederick Birely (1752-1806) who was identified in a 1788 deed as a tanner by occupation  and who had adjacent lots going back to about the American Revolution. It included two lots seized from British loyalists by the state, and turned over to Birely.

Kerns recent dig revealed intact tanning vats capped with clay and rubble from demolition of  auxiliary buildings in the 1950s, when the extant buildings were converted to a poultry operation.  Her archaeological dig found parts of the foundations of three razed buildings that appear on site maps between 1853 and 1974.

Birely Tannery building right

On impact of the proposed City-sponsored hotel complex she writes: “There is little doubt that the planned redevelopment of this property would have a negative impact and effect on the documented archeological rescue: it would be destroyed by the proposed undertaking.”

However Kerns says “ample data” has been collected and documentation done for a “thorough and accurate interrelation of the resource” and hence historic markers and displays “mitigate” the loss.

Main surprise to Kerns was the depth of fill on the site, several feet of clay rubble and gravel. This forced the archeologist to use a skid-steer loader and an excavator to get sufficiently deep samples.

Where now?

The Administrator, Project Review at the Trust, Beth Cole says the developer’s final submissions were received November 18. In an email late 2016 she said that a response would be going out in January (2017.) She and another staffer would do the initial review, which goes to the National Register Administrator Peter Kurtz and ultimately to the Trust Director, Elizabeth Hughes who makes the final decision.

When the Carroll Creek flood control project was in planning and design the then director off MHT J.Rodney Little wrote in a letter October 19, 1983: “Based on the submitted documentation, we have determined that the Birely Tannery Site is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.”

MHT’s Rodney Little in 1983 said was “eligible”

It is now claimed this referred only to that part of the site under the flood control conduits, although nothing in the letter qualifies it in that way.

City records show that in a August 17, 2015 letter to the City’s lead on the hotel project Richard Griffin, Ms Cole wrote that the Birely Tannery building “is likely to be a contributing element of the National Register-listed district.” Consultants to the City have separately categorized it as a ‘contributing resource’ — preservation jargon for saying it should be preserved and restored, not demolished.

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