Submission on HPC17-490 Application to demolish the Birely Tannery

Commissioners, I’m not much on sports but I believe your decision tonight is what they call a ‘slam dunk.’  This building is so obviously a ‘contributing resource.’ It is an historically important building, distinctive in its industrial architecture (Love that towering smokestack!) embodying the work of several generations of a locally important business family, bearing all the marks of a harsh world’s disasters of fire and flood, demonstrating the resilience and adaptiveness this business needed to deal with those disasters as well as rapidly evolving technologies and a constantly changing economy.

It was apparently the most substantial building that remains of what was in the mid-19th century the largest manufacturing industry in the county. It is of more importance because the comparison with other so-called ’tannery’ buildings in the state suggests it is unique as the only well preserved and genuine example of a building that comes out of 19th century leather making.

The staff work done on this case by City historic planners Lisa Murphy, Christina Martinkosky and their boss Matthew Davis is solid and competent in documenting the history of this important building, and correctly characterizes it as not only ‘contributing’ but ‘of unusual importance.’

This jibes with the assessment of the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) that this building is of such importance as to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. MHT also emphasized that the larger site is potentially rich in archeological remains including those from slaves who lived and worked there, and deserves an intense program of archeological digging.

Feel pity for the applicants! They have a nearly impossible task arguing the case for demolition of this building, so I guess it’s not surprising they resort to evasions and feeble arguments, simple to refute.

1. Refusal to allow BT demolition will kill the project: It needn’t. Pinnacle/OPX, consultants to the City had a site plan with the hotel/CC and BT preserved (see p69 of Pinnacle/OPX report 2010 Site Option V, Plan 3) and note the comment on the right that it preserves ‘Unique Historic Buildings.’ see

The project can be scaled back and designed around a preserved-BT. It has already been scaled back once so 200+ rooms and the 24,000sf CC is not sacrosanct. This false claim about you “killing the project” if you disallow demolition is crude political pressure on the HPC. In nine years it has changed many times, chameleon-like without dying, and it can change some more.

2. The BT is in poor to fair condition: wrong, the applicants neglect any assessment of the main fabric of the building, the brickwork and stonework. It is a brick and stone building basically, yet the applicants don’t even mention that! The BT’s brick and stone work is in good to excellent condition.

How absurd to assess a solid masonry building with comments on windows, the roof material, interior partitions etc and not address the main masonry fabric of the building, the materials that clad it and provide most of the structural support.

The BT is eminently repairable, eminently usable.

3. The BT has lost ancillary buildings and is now depressed below the grade of the Carroll Creek park promenades so it has lost its historic context and integrity: from a historic preservation viewpoint the ancillary buildings and setting are important, but in tight urban settings it is common for these to be lost, yet for the remaining building to be considered worthy of preservation.

Many of our most precious old buildings have lost their original setting, their ancillary buildings. At the other end of the Linear Park the Barbara Fritchie House is radically changed with its garden depressed way beyond water level. Would we ever contemplate its demolition on grounds its setting was radically changed? Even Schifferstadt, our most famous historic building of all has lost most of its ancillary buildings, and lost its setting with the construction of the imposing late 1950s embankment of the US15 expressway which rears up immediately behind it. Is Schifferstadt up for demolition on grounds of radically changed setting and ‘lack of integrity.’

Such argument is pathetic.

The BT’s depressed location relative to the promenades of the Linear Park presents a positive opportunity. The difference in grade pre-flood control and post-flood control provides visual drama that can be exploited by an imaginative designer to add 3-dimensional interest to highlight the history of the Creek and of its floods, and of flood control with imaginative stairways, ramps, wall treatments and landscaping. It would add drama and interest to be able to descend flights of stairs down to a Tannery Tavern, go browse in a Leather Crafts Shoppe, or visit a Museum of Tanning and 19th C Waterside Manufacturing, or any of a score of other uses for a substantial 19th century brick industrial building.

A sudden last extra thought: we could renovate the Birely Tannery building to tell the

Ron Young

history of the Creek and its floods and the flood control project and dedicate it the Ron Young House. A nice memorial tribute to the Mayor who conquered the destructive waters of the Creek, and saved downtown Frederick. And consider the opportunity afforded by the high broad smokestack of the BT to have the Ron Young visage beaming down from all four sides, his likeness visible from north, south, east and west, that great smokestack becoming another distinctive illuminated ‘spire’ on the Frederick skyline…

But before getting carried away let’s return to the plight of the applicants. How did they get themselves into pleading the ridiculous ‘It-is-non-contributing,’ stuff, trying to make an impossible case to this Commission?

Plamondon’s winning bid to the City in response to RFP14J dated May 9, 2014 was over 200 pages long and devoted several lines to demolition of the Birely Tannery evincing a breezy confidence that the Commission would be persuaded it was non-contributing and demolition would be readily agreed to. I quote from page 180 of the Plamondon winning bid: “Based on extensive historical studies already conducted by the Plamondon Development Team, PHP (Plamondon Hospitality Partners) is confident that the buildings to be demolished are ‘non-contributing’ historically, and fully satisfy the criteria in Section 423 of the LMC for demolition.”

I submit it is a matter of public interest to see these “extensive historical studies.“ What do they consist of? What was their reasoning? Who conducted these studies?

The City’s own Hotel Advisory Committee responsible for steering this project and for selecting the hotel developer obviously bought into the notion that the Birely Tannery was of little historic importance and could readily be demolished. Plamondon was not alone in this huge mistake of minimizing the historic status of the Birely Tannery in a historic district.

City officials and City appointees shared Plamondon’s dismissive view? Maybe they had gotten a sneak look at Plamondon’s ‘extensive historical studies’? To the rest of us these studies remain as much a mystery and a secret as a traffic impact study that the 2014 submission to RFP14J said had recently been completed by Plamondon.

The City’s Hotel Advisory Committee supervised the so-called ‘competed procurement’ 2013/2014 and its system of scoring the two submitted proposals — Plamondon’s and Wormald’s (for the Galleria site across the creek to the immediate southeast.) 2.5 points out of a possible 100 were for “Design Sensitivity to Historic District/Buildings.”

Plamondon on the old Frederick News Post site along with two historic buildings was scored 2 points, Wormald on the completely clear Galleria site with no necessary historic demolition got only 1 historic preservation point!

It might have been smart for that Hotel Advisory Committee to ask for a workshop with the Historic Planning Commission back in 2013 when they were setting up this scoring system? Or for the Mayor to appoint some historic preservation person to the Hotel Advisory Commission, an informed voice on demolition of historic buildings.

Instead they blundered into this historic preservation minefield blind to the issues… or full of hubris about their ability to crash their way through and get permits with the flimsiest of argument.

This Commission has a core mission to preserve buildings like the Birely Tannery, buildings of great historic interest and importance. We need new buildings too, but they can be built around the historic-buildings-of-importance, not on the dust of their demolition.

The historic preservation movement grew out of the public demand to protect ‘historic landmarks’ like the Birely Tannery. I’d urge you to attend seriously to that issue in this case HPC17-490. Please hold the line uncompromisingly against demolition of the Birely. The three associated cases are, I submit, where compromise is appropriate. Thank you.


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