Decades of clues to Frederick’s industrial past have been hiding in the walls of an abandoned warehouse near Carroll Creek.
Concealed in the ceiling were giant, metal trusses. Deep behind the drywall were the original stone walls. Lost behind layers of tan and white paint on the brick exterior walls was maroon lettering for the building’s first business, the Central Chemical Company.
With each swing of the sledgehammer, the property’s new owners are revealing, and then rebuilding, a world that once was.
Built in the early to mid-1800s, the building sits on the east side of the Frederick Town Historic District, an area that saw an industrial boom after the Civil War.
As Jane and Geb Byron work to turn the structure into an arty, industrial space for a restaurant, they take comfort in the advice they get from city staff and historic preservation commissioners, who have a trained eye for preserving the important parts of Frederick’s nearly 270 years of history.
While some property owners see the guidelines and processes that come with renovating a building in the historic district as a burden, the Byrons see them as a blessing.
In the last five years, it has become easier to complete renovations and new construction in the district, according to a review of the city’s database of cases since July 2009.
The city has made numerous changes since 2008, when a controversial Historic Preservation Commission case caused a public uproar.
Still, problems, and cynics, remain. Some property owners say the guidelines are too unwavering, the commissioners are given too much discretion, and the materials considered historically appropriate are too expensive.
Others turn a blind eye on the city’s rules and make repairs as they wish, often going unpunished.
City staff acknowledges that more work remains to make the process as fair and efficient as it can be.
Mayor Randy McClement says it is time for another review of the guidelines, to see if there are areas for improvement and whether the rules can be made more clear and consistent.
Lisa Mroszczyk Murphy, a historic preservation planner for the city who does this work daily, thinks the process is working overall. She said she sees mostly happy customers, but it’s the unhappy ones who make the most noise.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said.
THE CASE THAT CREATED CHANGE
It all started with a gold leaf sign that disappeared from a window.
In 2008, the new owners of a grand old building on North Market Street were preparing to open a restaurant in the space, which had served as the city’s first professional building in the 1920s. The restaurant, Volt, would soon become one of Frederick’s most acclaimed.
While putting up the new sign, restaurant staff removed the gold leaf “Professional Building” sign on the transom window, without prior approval from the city.
All property owners in the city’s historic district must submit a historic preservation application when making any exterior renovations or alterations, or for any new construction, additions or demolition. An owner must get a certificate of approval before applying for building and zoning permits. Most applications are approved by city staff, while more comprehensive cases go to the commission, an all-volunteer board, for a hearing.
At the time of the Volt case, the commissioners thought the restaurant should be fined, but Jeff Holtzinger, then Frederick’s mayor, told staff not to bother.
“There were better uses for their time,” Holtzinger said.
Many residents stood behind the mayor, stating that the city’s historic preservation rules and processes should be reconsidered.
The application process should be easier and faster, they said. New owners should be educated on historic preservation guidelines. The guidelines should be more predictable and allow for more modern building materials. And, finally, they said, the city should properly enforce its code.
City staff took residents’ comments to heart and got to work, said Joe Adkins, Frederick’s deputy director of planning.
The commission started hearing cases twice a month rather than once a month. The requirements for a workshop for each case and a 10-day public notice period for staff approvals were eliminated. One-day permitting was made available.
The city also started allowing more types of cases to be heard by staff, instead of the commission. In fiscal 2010, 65.3 percent of applications were staff-approved, compared with 70.2 percent in fiscal 2014, according to data compiled by Murphy.
With the changes, the average approval time for historic preservation cases fell from about 22 days in fiscal 2010 to about 15 days in fiscal 2014, according to a review of the city’s database.
Most people don’t realize that nearly all historic preservation cases are approved, said Stephen Parnes, a commissioner.
Of 1,189 applications received and closed from July 2009 to June 2014, only 19 were completely denied, including four from July 2013 to June 2014, according to the database. Others were partially denied, but that information is not in the database. Murphy reviewed cases for the same five-year period and found that 39 had been either denied or partially denied.
The city now surveys applicants to find out what is working and what is not, and puts out a newsletter updating the community on historic preservation news. Also, the city has begun offering historic preservation tax credits to taxpayers making exterior renovations that qualify.
Although major renovations, such as an addition or structural repairs, sometimes take months to get approved, the process is usually fast for minor work, such as replacing doors or railings with in-kind materials.
Almost half of applications submitted and closed from July 2013 to June 2014 were approved within three business days, according to city data.
The Byrons have had three hearings with the commission regarding repairs for their buildings on South Carroll Street.
They have sometimes disagreed with the commissioners.
They weren’t happy with the requirement to put an industrial-looking grid on the large windows facing the street, Jane Byron said, but now they have embraced the industrial look.
They will soon build a new entrance to the building, using metal I-beams for an overhang, she said.
“We talk to (the city) every step of the way.”
The preservation cases that often cause the most grief, Murphy said, occur when a property owner does work before getting the city’s approval.
That happens more often than the city would like — maybe because a property owner knows that, more often than not, the misdeed will go unpunished.
The city issues only one or two dozen citations a year related to historic preservation code violations and often voids the citations after they had been issued.
Out of 414 total notices of code violations related to historic preservation issued by the city since July 2009, 59 were still open as of September. Of those, 36 had been open for more than a year without being resolved.
The city will soon go through all the open cases to see that they are resolved and make changes to increase efficiency, said Dan Hoffman, the city’s division manager of code enforcement.
Hoffman hopes to put one code enforcement manager in charge of all cases related to historic preservation and of seeing each case through the entire process.
“We need to shorten timelines,” he said.
The city has also issued more citations this year to property owners who are in the wrong. But Hoffman has mixed feelings about that.
“They are just trying to make the house better, but just didn’t go through the proper channels,” he said. “If someone put a brand-new door on their house, you feel bad giving them a citation.”
Still, preserving the historic nature of the city is important, Hoffman said.
“We just have to get to where we are comfortable in saying we have the best process. ... It will be more efficient once we get everything plugged together,” he said.
Without the historic district, supporters say, Frederick wouldn’t be where it is today.
When Bernie Callan began advocating for preservation in the 1960s, he said, Frederick was a very different place.
Callan, who chaired the commission for 18 years, says he thought Frederick’s history should be preserved purely to boost economic development.
“I used to joke — and it was actually pretty true — that when I first started and I looked around, the only thing we had to sell in Frederick was dead people in the cemetery and old dirty buildings downtown,” Callan said. “You have to capitalize in what you’ve got.”
Callan has toured the region, talking about Frederick’s historic district and examining other cities’ districts. He thinks Frederick’s focused goals have paid off, compared with places like Hagerstown that haven’t done as well.
“I get around the state and I hear lots of people talking about coming to historic Frederick,” he said. “It creates a good, welcome feeling in the town.”
Parnes, who is on the commission, wants to see the city and real estate brokers do a better job of explaining what it means to live in the historic district, from the minute people start to considering purchasing property.
“There are many wonderful things about being here, but people also need to understand that there are requirements of them,” Parnes said.
Contractors who work in the historic district should tell residents about the guidelines, and residents should be proactive in educating themselves, he said.
“Ask what help there is,” he said. “Ask what it means to be in the historic district. Ask, ‘What do I need to do?’”
COSTS HINDER REPAIRS
In some cases, a property owner knows the right thing to do but doesn’t have the money to make it happen.
The commission doesn’t consider the economics of preservation cases.
In 2005, Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County, a nonprofit that helps needy families buy houses, bought a deteriorated log cabin on Fifth Street for $9,000, with the intention of fixing it up and selling it as an affordable house.
After a historic preservation commission workshop, though, it was obvious that the organization couldn’t afford to make repairs that followed preservation rules, according to Ron Cramer, Habitat’s executive director.
The commission wanted the house rebuilt with the same kind of logs as were used in the original building, he said.
Habitat decided to sell the property, but after putting it up for sale twice, it got only one bid — for $35.
The derelict building is now on the city’s blighted property list. Cramer recently met with city staff, and he said he will soon submit a request to demolish the house.
“After we demolish the building, we will sell the lot to someone who can do the lot justice, with a really nice house,” he said.
As part of a neighborhood revitalization initiative, Habitat has helped several homeowners in the uptown historic neighborhoods make repairs this year.
Talking to the owners, Cramer said, the historic preservation expectations may be hurting the area, more than helping.
“Do we want our city to fall into disrepair, just like the Fifth Street house is?” he asked.
City officials need to go out and meet with residents more, face to face, he said.
“Go out and sit down, and don’t just talk to them but listen to them about what their struggles are.”
Cramer likes the ideas he has heard from one homeowner, Allen Wetzel.
Wetzel, who lives on Seventh Street, owns a few residential properties in the district and has completed numerous renovations.
He thinks the city should give more leeway to people living on the outer edges of the district, such as the uptown area from Fourth Street to Seventh Street, he said, pointing out that some of these families have owned their houses since before the district was established.
Alexandria, Virginia, has divided its district, and he wonders why Frederick can’t do the same.
“I would recommend they make a section for the working man, in the residential areas,” he said.
Sitting on his porch last month, he looked up and down Seventh Street, noting that it doesn’t get many tourists.
“No tour bus is coming down here,” he said. “No one is going to come up here on a First Saturday with balloons.”
Just as ridiculous, Wetzel said, are the city requirements for areas that can’t be seen from the public right of way, such as back porches and sheds.
Some of his neighbors can’t afford the materials the commission requires, he said, or they use the cost as an excuse, allowing their properties to fall into disrepair.
“It’s my community, and I want to keep it looking nice,” he said.
Holtzinger thinks the city’s rules are contributing to blight, because they make it so difficult to make repairs, he said.
“It’s almost like common sense has been outlawed.”
The final product
Adkins and McClement both say they are open to new ideas.
Adkins doesn’t think the historic preservation guidelines are hurting property owners, he said.
“It’s a deterrent, yes. It’s a deterrent to people who don’t want to go through it. But the final product is a good product.”
Jane Byron is starting to see her product take shape.
She said her friends told her she was crazy when she and Geb purchased the property in 2011.
“This building looked terrible,” she said.
For her, revealing its secrets has been nothing but fun.
“We keep discovering these wonderful things,” she said.
It will be another year before she is done with repairs, but she said it’s been worth it.
“I’m an artist,” she said. “It feels like I’m saving something.”