City historic preservation staff twisted the official Guidelines attempting to kill a plan by St John’s Catholic Church to make garages on an alley more usable (HPC14-517.) The full commission eventually voted 4 to 2 to throw out the staff report and allow the project to proceed, but not before a lot of confusion and waste of everyone’s time.
At issue was a garage building on Austin Alley serving the rear of 115 East 2nd Street, opposite the main church. The garage building is located at the back or northern end of the house lot. Built in the 1920s the sides and south face of the garage are double brick and arguably of some historic significance. The alley-facing facade however has been much altered over the years and goes back 30 or 40 years only. The Church wants to remove the six narrow 8 foot garage doors and rebuild that facade to four 10 footers. Or they said they’d like to do three 16 foot doors.
Church’s rep only speaks to utilitarian issues
Contractor for the project is Fitzgerald Heavy Timber, a longtime restorer of historic buildings in the city, and around the county. The project was represented by Joe Lubozinski, who spoke solely to the Church’s desire to make the garages building more functional for the church staff it serves. He said in answer to a question that he’d never seen more than three cars and a motorbike in the building with six garage doors.
There was an extended discussion of the dysfunctionality of the narrow 8 foot doors, located as they are perpendicular to the 20 foot wide alley. The turning radii of vehicles is greater than 30ft, requiring most entries and exits to involve much back and forth.
No representation on doctrinal issues
But the applicant had no representation on the doctrinal issues raised for the case by the Frederick Town Historic District Design Guidelines, the holy book of preservation for the Commission. (We use the term ‘holy’ advisedly having been threatened by the HPC chairman Scott Winnette with expulsion once for saying that this tract of 160 pages and 48,000 words was a ‘damned mess.’ The D-word was unacceptable. We might have been saying it was the work of the devil?)
At the beginning of every hearing the chairman introduces the commissioners and staff and reads that the Commission “uses the Guidelines adopted by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen and the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation published by the US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, and these guidelines are made a part of each and every case.”
After asking whether commissioners are eligible to vote on scheduled cases, the Chairman reads: “It is the purpose of the (HPC) to safeguard the historical and cultural heritage of the City of Frederick by preserving sites, structures, or districts that reflect elements of cultural social, economic, political, archeological or architectural history, to stabilize and improve such sites, structures and districts…”
First should look at historical importance
The Commission’s Guidelines p15 require it to first establish whether a structure or part proposed for modification is a ‘contributing resource’ historically, archeologically or architecturally. If it is found to be a ‘contributing resource,’ the lingo for having historic preservation value, then there is a case for strict application of detailed guidelines that follow over the next hundred-plus pages.
A ‘NON-contributing resource’ is historic preservation lingo for a building or part of a building that doesn’t have preservation value. And so there is no point in attempting to apply all the detailed subsidiary guidelines. This staff report prepared by Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy on the Catholic Church’s Austin Alley garages skipped right over the issue of preservation value, having not a single word to say about whether the garages structure or the garage doors portion proposed for alteration is a contributing or non-contributing resource.
Silent on that.
Instead just treating it as a ‘contributing resource,’ the staff report jumped right into the arcane subsidiary details of what is allowed for a contributing resource. “Character defining features” had to be identified, repaired and preserved. If they were deteriorated beyond repair then the replacement must replicate the historic design, or be “in keeping with” the rest of the building. (p100)
see copy of staff report at the bottom of this post
The Guidelines on contributing resources of historic value call for retaining “the number, pattern and placement” of openings, although new window and doors may be permitted on a case-by-case basis, generally to provide access for an addition.” (p66) On this thin reed the staff report declared that the proposed switch from six doors to four doors on the northern alley facade of the garages is “inconsistent with the guidelines.” This was nonsense of course, as your editor pointed in public comment.
Historic 1970s pressed metal doors and T1-11 siding
The northern alley facade in question consists of c1970s or non-historic materials – pressed metal garage doors with fake wood panel texture and, above the doors a 3 foot high band of 1970s T1-11 roughsawn finish plywood paneling. These are materials installed outside of the historic “period of significance” (within the last 50 years) and they are materials specifically banned by the Guidelines for use in the historic district as inappropriate and incompatible. The face proposed for rehab has no historic integrity. Nothing on the garage doors face goes back 50 years or forms part of a cohesive construct , “no integrity” in the lingo, worth historic preservation. It has no architectural or archeological value either.
The portion of the garage proposed for rehabilitation is emphatically non-contributing – not worthy of preservation – and hence the guideline cited by the staff report about retaining the number of doors does not apply.
In addition as commissioner Steven Parnes noted the Guidelines instruct preservation regulators to recognize a hierarchy of facades. Clearly the main streetfront of a site normally ranks top in such a hierarchy and warrants the closest scrutiny for proposed alteration. Other portions visible from the street may rank in the middle.
A facade of a garage on an untidy, utilitarian alley obviously ranks low on the Guidelines’ hierarchy of facades.
No substance to staff report
There was no substance to the staff report claim that the proposed alterations are inconsistent with the Guidelines since the staff misapplied a rule designed for contributing resources of preservation value to a non-contributing resource of no preservation value. 8 foot garage doors are inconveniently narrow and unsafe for today’s vehicles. 9 foot and 10 foot garage doors provide more comfortable clearance and are safer giving a wider field of view to the driver of any pedestrians or approaching vehicles or other hazards. The proposed work is a legitimate upgrade and meets the Guidelines. It is a positive attempt at preservation which the Commission should support.
“Accommodate improvements” to keep buildings in active use to sustain their viability
The state’s Maryland Historic Preservation Commission Training Program manual defines historic preservation: “Preservation means keeping historic properties and places in active use while accommodating appropriate improvements to sustain their viability and character.” (Chapter 1, Why are we here? Part C: What does historic preservation mean?, page 9.)
The phrase there “…accommodating appropriate improvements to sustain viability…” should be pronounced at the beginning of every meeting of Frederick’s HPC. It should welcome a project to adapt a bunch of garages in a way that improved their utility, because the continued usefulness of a building is a key to incentivizing the owners to maintain it.
Commission rejected staff report 4 to 2
The owners, the St John Catholic Church were represented at the hearing by Joe Lubozinski of Fitzgerald Heavy Timber Construction, the Church’s design-build contractor for the project. He spoke mainly to the difficulty of using 8ft garages, especially given the narrowness of the alley and a utility post located in the path of vehicles making a wider sweep.
He said the owners were happy to go to three 16ft doors if this would better retain the old pattern of door openings. They were also happy to go to four 10ft doors.
After discussion and some public comment it was clear the commissioners weren’t buying the staff report.
Commissioner Chase Tydings said he couldn’t support an arrangement of narrow doors that would force users of the garage to encroach on neighbors property opposite in the alley to make their entries and exits.
Commissioner Robert Jones said he found the proposal by the Church had no effect on the historic portions of the building, namely the sides and the back, and the only facade to be modified was non-historic.
Tydings made a motion: “This commission finds the facade where the doors are located non-contributing for the reason there have been significant change in the historical materials making up that facade….we approve the 10 foot doors so that we have four doors instead of six.”
Chairman Scott Winnette seconded Tydings’ motion.
Winnette said as he often does that the staff was “giving us the strictest interpretation of the Guidelines.” He found the garage doors facade non-contributing “because of the changes to it.” He favored the 4x10ft door plan rather than the 3x16ft.
COMMENT: Apparently Winnette thinks the staff role is to treat absolutely everything within the historic district as a contributing resource in contradiction of the Guidelines requirement that it distinguish contributing from non-contributing – the historically valuable from items of little or no historic value.
Commissioner Parnes objected to the Tydings/Winnette motion on the grounds that it singled out the garage doors facade as non-contributing: “We’re not supposed, I believe to be dissecting buildings to determine whether something is contributing or not based on a singular (he meant: single) facade.”
COMMENT: most historic preservation focusses on the whole building or structure as Parnes states, but not Frederick’s. p15 the Frederick Guidelines define contributing resources in terms of “Buildings, structures, sites or objects (or parts thereof)” that help define the district, that add historic or architectural value or are at least 50 years old. Tydings and Winnette were therefore correct in applying the contributing resource test to the facade of the building, a “part thereof.”
Commissioner Rebecca Cybularz said “six garage doors have been there forever. And that is the rhythm of the garage. To mess with that rhythm and to say that in the hierarchy of elevations that that the garage door elevation is the least character defining is simply not true.”
Lisa Murphy battled on claiming that the Guidelines forbid any change in the number of garage doors from the historic number of six 8ft doors. The pattern and placement of doors cannot be altered even though the materials have changed, she said. This was a character defining facade.
Murphy never addressed the criticism that her report had failed to establish the facade, or for that matter the garage as a whole, as a contributing resource.
She got two votes, those of Cybularz and Parnes. Voting to allow the project to proceed with the larger doors were Tydings, Winnette, Wesolek and Jones.
- editor. 2014-09-15
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