Apparently the word ‘damn’ offends the sensibilities of Scott Winnette, chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee. When I said at the hearing on the asphalt roof for 111W4th that the HPC’s Guidelines are “a damn mess” the phrase just flowed from my lips. Thinking about it afterwards I was using the word damn to provide emphasis, and I discover linguists call it a generic intensifier: “To condemn as unfit, harmful, of poor quality, unsuccessful, invalid, immoral or illegal.”
At the hearing Winnette interrupted me saying he was not going to allow “profanity.”
Now the use of the word ‘damn’ against a person – for example “Damn you Winnette” – would indeed be profane and unacceptable language, because it has the quite different meaning of “Go to Hell.”
But if you think the Guidelines are, to quote the dictionary definition of damn “unfit, harmful, of poor quality, unsuccessful, invalid, immoral, illlegal…” and so they can be described dictionary-correct as a “damn mess.”
Talk about incoherent. They can’t even make clear when asphalt shingle roofing is allowed in the Frederick historic district, and when it isn’t.
It is not as if asphalt shingle is some obscure product.
Asphalt shingles are America’s most common roof sheathing and have been for about a hundred years.
160 pages and 48,000 words of the official rules for the Historic District can’t even be clear on whether and when the City guardians will allow its use.
Confused Guidelines are a serious problem for people who live here and who want to keep up their buildings and for people who might come here and invest.
There’s also the bigger constitutional problem. We are supposed to be a country of laws – or at least of clear regulations enacted under law. Otherwise we are subject to the uncertainties and unfairness of capricious treatment by officials, and we have lost our liberty.
The Frederick City Guidelines are a wild mix of:
- detailed penny ante proscriptions and prescriptions, many of which have no evident or articulated rationale (Why the heck must all wood cladding and trim be planed and painted opaquely, when historically it was just as common for wood to be rough-sawn and stained or weathered?)
- vague, fuzzy, highly subjective categorizations inviting arbitrary, unfair official judgment (contributing resource, compatible, historically or architecturally significant, character-defining etc.)
The Guidelines are intellectually a disgraceful document – a damn mess.
And who is to blame?
Who composed the Damn Mess? The Acknowledgements page lists 13 people under two groups as having “assisted” – eight members of the 2009 Historic Preservation Commission, only one (Scott Winnette) of whom is still active, plus a Historic Preservation Focus Group of five, none of whom are still active. By and large all those who composed the Damn Mess are gone five years later.
Then the Acknowledgements page says simply: “Text by Barbara Wyatt.”
Last year after we read that we called Ms Wyatt asking her advice on an interpretation. She said she’d been out of City historic preservation for several years – she now works at the US National Park Service – and couldn’t speak to them.
I said: “But you wrote the Guidelines didn’t you?”
She denied it. She was surprised to hear that the document said “Text by Barbara Wyatt.”
Wyatt said all she had done was to write an early draft document for the Historic Commission but that the text had been heavily changed to get to the final document and she had nothing to with any of the committee work. (It was adopted November 2008, but the present Guidelines document was amended April 1, 2010.)
Apparently the Text is by Committee, and from what we know of those named they are mostly historic preservation enthusiasts – people who place a far higher value on historic preservation than the average citizen and so likely to produce a code that goes too far. Its confusions however probably reflect the efforts to find compromises between people of different degrees of zealotry or enthusiasm.