Talking points on history of Birely Tannery building and its possible revival

Demolition of the Birely Tannery building looks highly unlikely because it requires the agreement of both state and city historic preservation agencies. Both have ruled that the old tannery is of unusual importance historically.  The state preservation officer Elizabeth Hughes has ruled the building and site are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and she has issued an ‘adverse effect’ ruling against the proposal as submitted.

They are both saying a strong No to demolition.

The procedures of both agencies provide that efforts now be made to find compromises so the broader development project — a conference center hotel in this case — can be modified in ways that allow the historic building to be preserved. They will look to downsizing, or rearrangement of the site plan, or omission of portions of the project.

PROCEDURES: Under Section 423 of the City’s Land Management Code where a historic building of unusual importance is involved under (6) B. (i) “the Commission shall attempt to formulate an economically feasible plan with the owner of the site or structure for its preservation.” Under (6) B (ii) “If no economically feasible plan can be formulated the Commission shall have 90 days… to negotiate with the  owner and other parties in an effort to find a means of preserving the site or structure.”  (6) C. (i) provides for denial of the demolition unless the Commission is persuaded that it “will not materially impair the historic, archeological or architectural significance of the site or structure.”


I don’t think it will get beyond this. No case possibly be made that demolition will not impair the historic etc significance of the structure? That is like the challenge of  making a persuasive case to the jury that killing your friend did not impair his health.

The odds are very strong indeed that compromises will leave the Birely standing. Even if only one of the two agencies says ’No-to-demo’ then it stays. If Maryland Historical Trust says No, then no state capital funds can go to the project and that’s half the budgeted public funding. If the HPC says No then it stays. Under City law the project cannot advance to the Planning Commission without HPC approval.

But no one wants it to stay as it is, boarded, neglected, derided and owned by a family that evidently sees it as more of a liability than an asset and which has joined in the effort to demolish it.

THE POTENTIAL: Seen by many hotel supporters as an obstacle and an impediment to improvement along the Creek Park it is likely many people without a direct interest see the Birely as an eyesore to be removed. In its present neglected, boarded-up state it is an eyesore. But it needn’t be. With modest expenditure relative to the many millions proposed to be spent on the hotel complex, and with imaginative designers, it can be given a new life.

We know from his second Workshop presentation that Plamondon’s architect Peter Fillat saw potential in the Birely, showing two early schemes where the tannery was moved and rehabbed in a corner location and two schemes in which it was rehabbed in situ down at the lower level — though of course Fillat later moved to the present plan in which it is demolished.

But note: evidenced by the first four schemes he designed Plamondon’s architect Peter Fillat  thought the Birely eminently fixable, and capable of being made into a viable ‘specialty restaurant.’ Fillat explained at the July 27 workshop that site and height constraints meant the conference center whose long-span roof precludes anything above it had to encroach on either the Terminal Building or the Tannery. In the end they decided the best design for the hotel complex would restore the Terminal Building and remove the Tannery, in part to get a long uninterrupted Creek frontage for the new construction.

However as National Register Eligible and deemed Of Unusual Importance, getting the historic preservation agencies permission to demolish the Birely Tannery (BT) its a pipedream.

The BT’s depressed location relative to the promenades of the Linear Park has been seen by some as a difficulty. To the contrary it 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.

In addition to stairs down, there could be a foot bridge or bridges from promenades of the Carroll Creek Linear Park across to the second floor of the Birely Tannery which is about at the same elevation. With nearby 7,000 sf of floor space the building could cater to multiple uses.

The whole site, trolley/FNB/railway building, the Birely and the land in between has been proposed by Richard Jeffries as a ‘creative business incubator’ to attempt to work a synergy between Frederick’s historic setting and new media technologies.

see site plan here


Richard Jeffries proposal


The high probability of failure of the hotel promoters’ move to demolish the Birely Tannery building makes it worthwhile to start envisioning what it might be.

MIX OF OLD & NEW: Just what is it that can attract people to live, work and visit? There are many opinions. Two things I’d propose (1) we’re on the fringe of the 8 million population combined Washington/Baltimore metro area and need to be more fully integrated into it with better road connections (270, 15 etc) and we need better streetscapes on the way in from the interstates to downtown (2) we aren’t and can’t be especially historic or especially modern or especially well planned. We’re rather messy and unplanned in our ‘eclectic’ mix of old and new, and that’s a lot of the charm of the place.  The unexpected and often incongruous mix of styles, structures, spaces and settings have resisted the earnest harmonizing efforts of the Historic Preservation Commission and other planners. It’s a city that evolved from the uncoordinated imaginations and efforts of many generations of thousands of local people. That’s the charm!

Mixing of old and new is seen in Bert Anderson’s projects in Everedy Square, and on the northeast corner of East and South Streets (Monocacy Valley Canning) and on a smaller scale on the south side of Brewers Alley. A re-enlivened Birely Tannery building could be a standalone establishment but modern buildings could be close by, as is established practice  in Frederick.


—On February 7, 2017 Elizabeth Hughes, State Historic Preservation Officer and Director of the Maryland Historical Trust wrote Richard Griffin of the City of Frederick to say that after reviewing a submission on the Birely

Elizabeth Hughes, director Maryland Historical Trust

Tannery building the state’s historic preservation experts found it not only a ‘contributing’ historic resource but Eligible for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places. On July 26 in comments on the first plans for the hotel Hughes issued an ‘advise effect’ finding: “(I)t is out determination that the project will have an adverse effect on historic and archeological properties.”

— Likewise on July 13 the City of Frederick Historic Preservation Commission voted seven to zero in favor of a City historic planning staff report finding that the building and site were “contributing resources and of unusual importance.” It was the first time since the category “of unusual importance” was written into City code in 2005 that the Commission applied it to an application for demolition

— following this decision the Commission is required by City law as laid down in the Land Management Code to engage with the applicants (land owner Myron Randall, the City of Frederick, and the City-selected hotel developer Plamondon Hospitality Partners) in a discussion of all possible alternatives to demolition, which will occur in public ‘workshops’ after the regular formal hearings twice monthly

— the Birely Tannery was the longest operating tannery in Frederick County, including in a period in the mid-19th century when  tanning leather was the leading manufacturing industry, and through periods of rapid change in technology and demand. The Birelys showed amazing adaptability and resilience n their conduct off the business.

— three generations of Birelys ran the tanning business at this site. In  the middle part of the tannery’s existence George Birely was a leading businessman of Frederick being on the boards of several companies

— the tannery building we see today has substantial extant portions dating from the 19th century tanning operations as analyzed in the fourth of five research papers produced by City preservation staff. The present T-plan building was built in three discrete blocks, called in the report Blocks A, B, and C.  Block A of three stories, one stone and two brick goes back to at least 1887.  A fire in 1909 destroyed the roof of this block but much of the masonry walls remained. Today’s Block A they say has had only “modest alterations” made since. Block B goes back much further appearing in an 1854 map. It lost its roof and second story brickwork in 1909 but was rebuilt much to the earlier form after the fire. The impressive chimney they say was added in 1922. Block C appeared first in 1892 maps. It suffered major damage too in the 1909 fire but it too was rebuilt, on old foundations to its 19th century form after the 1909 disaster.

— small single story shed-like extensions were added when the building was converted to poultry processing in the 1950s but the major part of the fabric is the original masonry work from the 19th century with post-fire reconstruction following the pattern of that destroyed by the fire.

— a comparison of the Birely tannery with other ‘tannery sites’ around the state suggests it is the last remaining building with a clear connection to tanning in the 19th century in the state.

— the broader site has been recognized as an equally important archeological site likely to yield important historical information through a much more extensive archeological dig than performed to date, according to MHT the state preservation regulator and the City preservation commission.

The building

— the building has been vacant for about 15 years and has been badly neglected by the owner and been given a pass by City code enforcement

— doors and windows are mostly gone replaced by improvised construction ply, and lintels are rotted

— the interior has trash and graffiti

— on the plus side the basic fabric of the building, its stone and brick masonry two and three wythes thick is in excellent condition except above some rotted lintels. The splendid distinctive smokestack, unusually high and wide with an elegant taper, is as plumb and true as the day it was built nearly a century ago. The floor and roof rafters are in  good condition. The building is eminently repairable with new doors and windows, removal of the concrete block accretions including window awnings from the 1950s.

— the building is 6,912 square feet (sf) according to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation and is valued at $104,100 for the building and $627,200 for the land for a total $731,300. (‘rear of 212 East Patrick, acc # 116480, a separate lot from the FNP/trolley building adjacent.)


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.