Maryland Historical Trust rejects hotel submission, says Birely Tannery of national historic importance, site a rich archeological resource

Maryland Historical Trust (MHT), the state’s historic preservation agency has forcefully rejected submissions by historic consultants of the developer and the City of Frederick on behalf of proposals for the City sponsored downtown hotel complex. The rejections are contained in an eight page letter dated February 7 from MHT director and State Preservation Officer Elizabeth Hughes addressed to Richard Griffin the City’s Director of Economic Development and the hotel project manager.

Hughes says the Trust made a careful review of the submissions and other sources and has formally determined that both the Tannery building and the more extensive site are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This makes it almost unthinkable that the state will allow the tannery building (FHD-1303) to be demolished as required by present City plans for the hotel. Worse still for the hotel project the whole site (18FR575) is characterized as a rich archeological resource that warrants more

Birely Tannery building

comprehensive study than done to date.

That forecloses on the possibility of attempting to start on the hotel early, having excised or deferred the conference center portion which is planned for the portion of the lot occupied by the 100+ years old brick building.

On the Birely tannery building Hughes’ letter says “The Trust has determined that the building contributes to the significance of National Register-listed Frederick Historic District.”

Frederick was “a center” of the tanning industry in Maryland, with at least eight tanneries in operation in the early 20th century. The Birely operation on the site began about 1830 and produced leather through to 1952, making it in the state Historical Trust’s words “the longest lived tannery in the City.”


The building which the hotel project director Richard Griffin has called ‘dilapidated’ the Trust says  “retains sufficient integrity” to reflect its association with the industrial history of Frederick. MHT call it a “small scaled vernacular industrial building,” which “represents a variety of agricultural processing operations,” a reference to its switch to poultry after the leather business ceased.

On historic integrity the MHT says: “Although the building has been altered over time, it retains its exterior form and structure” during the historic district’s ‘period of significance’ 1745 to 1941.

“Thus the Birely Tannery (FHD-1303) is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A. Event”

Criterion A in federal register law is the building’s association with either one important moment in American history (not applicable) or a pattern of events or a historic trend that made a significant contribution to a community, a state or the nation. In the case of the Birely it is the “pattern of events” associated with it which gets it on the National Register list.

A second finding is that the broader Archeological Site (18FR575) is also eligible for the National Register. Elizabeth Hughes’ letter speaks glowingly of the potential of the site to produce new insights into early industry with deeper and more intensive ‘digs’ making use of new technologies.

Squarish box shows archeological site with Tannery building in lower part of box. Large building to the immediate northwest is the Railroad or Trolley building already found historically significant.

“The research revealed that the site retains good subsurface integrity with intact deposits beneath fill, excellent preservation of material remains, and has the demonstrated potential to yield important information regarding the development of the tanning industry throughout this time period.”

Unique archeological site

Historical Trust staff checked the statewide Archeological Synthesis to look at archeology work on tanneries across Maryland, and Hughes writes, have concluded the Birely site is “the sole tannery site” in the state investigated through three phases of archeological study and “found to yield substantive and comprehensive information regarding this important industry through the 19th – mid 20th century.”

The real archeology work at the site, MHT suggests, is only beginning.

Under the head Next Steps the MHT letter calls for:

— “more detailed project information” to determine the ‘area of potential effects’

— information on archeology and history of nearby buildings

— continued involvement of the public and consulting parties

The Hughes letter concludes: “Once we have progressed through the steps discussed above, we can make an informal assessment of the project’s effects on historic and archeological properties and work to find effective solutions that sensitively incorporate project need and historic preservation initiatives.”

MHT looks forward to “ongoing consultation.”

Difficulties in taking next steps

More detailed project information cannot be provided because detailed design is presently on hold, project manager Griffin said at a Neighborhood Advisory Council meeting  at Brewers Alley January 17. That is because of uncertainties over the financing of the project with state agencies shunning it. Detailed design work called for by the MHT and by the City’s own permitting processes is so expensive it cannot be done until it is clear how much state, county and city money will be authorized to go into the hotel.

Having promised local citizens they would never be put ‘on the hook’ for subsidizing the hotel, City officials were hoping the state would provide over half the $31m upfront public subsidy for the hotel. Five of the eight members of the Frederick County delegation to Annapolis (Republicans Sen Hough, Delegates Afzali, Ciliberti, Folden, Vogt)  oppose state funding, while three (Democrats Sen Young and Delegates Krimm and Young) support it. Fredericktonian David Brinkley, the Governor’s budget director, supports the project and is credited with helping the three Democrats get the project around the regular appropriations process last session. House and senate appropriations committees held hearings and decided against state funding.

In addition heavy lobbying apparently continues on behalf of state funds for the hotel. By now over $100,000 has been spent by the City and others for lobbying on behalf of state funds for the project.

City “looks forward” to working with MHT and others

The City issued a News Release in response to the MHT letter headlined: ‘City, Plamondon Hospitality, Maryland Historic (sic) Trust  will collaborate to preserve hotel site’s history.’ It begins: ‘The City of Frederick looks forward to working with the Maryland Historic  (correctly: Historical) Trust on the next steps to take now that the Trust has confirmed the historic significance of the Frederick railroad building and the Birely Tannery site.’

Hughes of MHT

In fact City government was “looking forward” to an MHT finding the opposite of what it got. It advocated and hoped for a finding that the Birely Tannery building and  site were NOT of sufficient historic significance to be placed on the National Register. That was the whole thrust of  submissions of Kann Partners, preservation consultants hired by Plamondon and the City to make the submission to MHT.  They checked the ‘no’ in response to the form question “Contributing resource.”  If the MHT had agreed with the developer/City submission that the Tannery was not a ‘contributing resource’ then it would not have been eligible for the National Register.

Sheets 13 and 14 of the Eligibility Review form of September 21, 2016 submitted by Kann Partners’ historian Mimi Giguere on behalf of the project discused the four criteria for National Register eligibility and is negative on all of them. It finds that under Criteria A.

South elevation of proposed hotel with Marriott sign on conference center end located where Birely Tannery Building how stands

Event the tannery was not associated with any significant historic event, was not a significant employer and did not generate major economic activity for the City. It concluded “the Birely Tannery very likely does not contribute to the significance of the historic district.” As to Criteria B. Persons  it concluded the Birely family did not significantly contribute to the civic life of the City and so “the Tannery site does not qualify.” Same too with Criteria C. Design/Construction Kann Partners submitted that the remaining building “is not an important example” of tannery manufacture due to reconstruction after the 1909 fire in the building. It concluded: “The extent of loss of associated structures and essential context, as well as lack of uniqueness or exemplary nature of the architecture disqualifies the remnant of the tannery under Criteria C.”

Criteria D. Informational Potential was addressed separately by archeologist Mechelle Kerns who conducted a dig on the site last fall. It concluded (p111) that the tannery “is tenuously eligible for listing on the NR (National Register)  as it lacks integrity and additional excavation are (sic) unlikely to provide data that would alter the interpretation of the site.”

Kerns submission recommended the hotel development “should proceed” with the stipulation that more digs should be done for artifacts under areas not accessible to her. Plus there should be “robust public outreach” via a pamphlet, lectures, and a history display in public spaces of the hotel.

MHT brutal about Mechelle Kerns work


There’s an attachment of three pages to the MHT letter to the City brutally critical of Mechelle Kerns’ archeology report, suggesting a thorough checking and considerable rewrite is needed before it is acceptable to MHT. Site plans to scale are called for. Inaccuracies  are cited. Text and plans are inconsistent, it states. Illustrations of artifacts are not properly referenced.  Identified structural remains need to be better presented. A much more extensive description and analysis of earlier archeology is needed where Kerns has provided just one paragraph.

MHT says the archeologist “should not discount the need for and value” of further archeological investigations.

Comment #28 of 28 MHT comments on the archeology report: “The final report would benefit from careful editing for format, typos and consistency.”

City spin misleads in many ways

The City news release is misleading in quoting Donald Kann as saying “the Trust confirmed his assessment the site’s important archeological context.” In fact Kann’s representative Kerns wrote that “additional excavation are (sic) unlikely to provide data that would alter the interpretation of the site.”

City officials and Plamondon have consistently said the project must demolish the Birely Tannery building. Just one example: A talking points document for speakers by Richard

‘U’ on side is the proposed hotel, square portion is conference center where tannery building now stands

Griffin for a Mayor & Board meeting in September 2014 has under the head Mythbusting a Myth #5: ‘Project is not sensitive to historic preservation,’ countered by a ‘Fact’ that the hotel project will renovate and adaptively reuse the historic trolley building, and then: “Demolition of the dilapidated/fire-damaged Tannery will be required…”

All the project renderings and preliminary site plans show the tannery building gone, replaced by a subsurface parking deck at the present tannery grade and at park promenade level the grand spaces of a new conference center atop the car parking.

The City ’spin’ on the MHT letter in their ‘news release’ is extraordinary.

Take this rendering of the MHT letter: “The Trust has determined that the site contains significant archeological elements that the City, the Trust, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and Plamondon Hospitality Partners can collaborate to preserve appropriately as the hotel project goes forward.”

The City news release reads as if the substantial Birely Tannery building does not exist, and is not an issue.  It fails to acknowledge the MHT  has just declared the building as well as the site to be of national historic significance. All goes swimmingly, it suggests, at a time when the City-chosen site is at a minimum tied up in years of difficult negotiations, expensive investigation, and contention  over cost and delay. Moreover the city PR presents state agencies wary of the project as ‘partners.’

DHCD zeroed out City on million-$ request

Also the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has no obvious involvement in this process. Late last year DHCD responded to the City’s request for $1 million toward the hotel project not with half or a quarter of the ask amount, but with nothing — a knockback that the City has never publicly acknowledged, but which suggests that department has little interest in further collaborating on the City hotel project — in line with the stance of the state Stadium Authority, the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO), and Governor Hogan.

Richard Griffin is quoted in the news release as saying: “The history of the tanning industry in Frederick has been widely celebrated, and collaborating with the Trust opens ways for us to expand on that.”

Expanded celebrations will do the trick!?!

Larger archeological project wanted by MHT

Clearly MHT is requiring a much larger archeology effort than undertaken so far, and it wants detailed project designs. The City may have difficulty delivering on that. The project will now likely need a larger budget beyond the present $84m, and much longer time before ground could be broken on actual construction.

Those ‘milestones’ come and go

The City’s agreement (MOU ) with hotel developer Plamondon signed less than 15 months ago (December 3, 2015) contained an Appendix F comprising a Preliminary Milestone Schedule calling for a Construction Start “on or before June 2017” and a Grand Opening of the hotel complex “on or before January 2019.”

It also contained this item: “Maryland Historical Trust Agreement — May 1, 2016.”  The submissions to MHT weren’t completed until mid-November. And there is certainly no agreement.

MHT letter declaring Birely building and site historically significant and eligible for National Register of Historic Places:


City news release:



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