City's historic district bears modern flaws

The Baltimore Sun

To the untrained eye, the windows and other dressings adorning the homes and businesses in downtown Annapolis' historic district may seem perfectly appropriate.

But upon closer inspection, some city activists say, there are glaring no-no's: vinyl replacement windows, fiberglass columns and faux-wood doors.

In a letter to Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, Ben Purcell, a local builder, pointed to what he said are egregious violations of the city's historic preservation ordinance and warned of a "slow erosion of the historic fabric that makes our town so unique."

"When you build in Annapolis, you want to build in an authentic and real way," said Craig Purcell, Ben Purcell's brother and a local architect. "With fake materials, they don't really wear that well. And it's against the law. You can't go putting fake materials in a historic district."

Annapolis, which is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its charter next year, is no stranger to struggles over preserving authentic details in its historic district.

A battle over a plastic rose trellis, which the city's historic commission deemed inappropriate, went all the way to the state's highest court, according to published news articles from 1987.

Ultimately, the roses and the plastic trellis won out.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission, founded in 1969, is charged with enforcing the ordinance and approving building certificates in the area that encompasses the National Landmark Historic District of Colonial Annapolis.

Each year, the panel investigates 75 to 100 alleged ordinance violations, said commission Chairwoman Sharon A. Kennedy.

The commission is investigating the alleged violations that the Purcell brothers pointed out.

Kennedy said that a public hearing, in which the owners of buildings alleged to be in violation can offer a defense, will be held as early as this month. She declined to comment about specific violations.

"The situation is, typically, significantly more complicated than the surface appears," Kennedy said. "Until 10 years ago, the HPC's purview was only for parts of buildings that could be seen from the public way. ... It's not a straight A to B situation. And that's why it is so important that due process be involved."

On a recent tour to highlight suspected violations, Ben Purcell pointed to the exterior of a Main Street shop.

"It's a stamped metal door," he said, banging on it for emphasis. "It should be wood."

A white plastic planter sat on the sidewalk on Green Street. That should be wood, too, Purcell said. And, by his count, there are about 50 vinyl windows downtown.

"All of these plastic windows that we see is really [indicative] of the historic commission becoming ineffectual over time," said Wayne L. Good, an Annapolis architect.

Greg Stiverson, former president of the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation, called the violations "death by a thousand cuts." The foundation was founded in 1952 to preserve the city's architectural heritage.

"Every little thing that is changed, taken away ... does damage that is cumulative. ... And it does have a cumulative effect of changing the town," Stiverson said.

"The people of Annapolis have worked now for 60 years to preserve the city. It's sad when you see people through ignorance or willfulness taking the original fabric away and replacing it with things that just aren't the same."

In response to Purcell's letter, the mayor has invited a number of residents to a summit on historic preservation next month.

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