The future of a decaying, 200-year-old log cabin in downtown Frederick remains uncertain after the city’s Historic Preservation Commission failed to pass the necessary designation that would allow its demolition.
The designation of the 107 E. Fifth St. log cabin as a noncontributing resource in the Frederick Town Historic District failed by a 2-2 vote on Thursday, with Commissioner Rebecca Cybularz and Chairman Scott Winnette voting for the designation and commissioners Carrie Albee and Dan Lawton opposed.
Without the noncontributing classification, property owner Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County’s demolition request cannot be approved because the case qualifies as demolition by neglect, according to Christina Martinkosky, a city historic preservation planner.
After Albee’s motion to classify the property as a contributing resource failed as well, commissioners voted unanimously to continue the hearing at their next meeting with the hopes that additional members would be present to break the tie vote.
Since it bought the structure in 2005, Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County requested approval to demolish the termite-ridden, decaying log cabin once before, in 2008. The nonprofit organization’s attempt to rid itself of the financial and resource burden of the dilapidated property crumbled after the commission deemed the cabin a significant resource to the Frederick Town Historic District.
Ron Cramer, who has since taken over as executive director of Habitat, submitted a new demolition application last winter, simultaneously approaching preservation organizations to ensure all opportunities to salvage the early 19th-century structure were exhausted.
‘Right thing to do’
Both Cramer and Douglass Reed, the private preservation contractor who surveyed the property, said they were reluctant to tear down a historical structure. But Reed deemed the cabin unsalvageable and unsafe, noting that parts of the decaying structure caved in during his evaluation.
“My heart is with the naysayers,” Reed said after the commission’s vote Thursday. “But it has to come down. It’s the right thing to do.”
Preservation Maryland, a statewide organization devoted to historic preservation, also declined Cramer’s offer to give it the property free of charge.
Given the extent of Habitat’s efforts, the commission’s decision was frustrating, according to Tee Pecora, a member of Habitat’s board of directors representing the organization on Thursday.
“We’ve done everything we can do,” Pecora said.
Several other city residents spoke in support of the demolition request at the public hearing.
Kevin Sellner, who lives several doors down from the site, said the building posed such safety hazards that anyone who entered it could be seriously hurt.
Anthony Moscato, chairman of the Frederick Preservation Trust and local preservation advocate, also urged the commission to support the demolition despite his interest in historic preservation.
“I can’t see a way forward in restoring this property,” Winnette agreed.
Key piece of city history
But Albee said she thought the property continued to represent a key example of workmanship, design and construction from one of the earliest periods of the city’s very existence.
“I can’t be comfortable with losing a building of this age, of this unique character just because it’s in admittedly bad condition,” she said. “Frankly, I would rather see it sit there and turn to dust than see it approved for premature demolition.”
Lawton said that although at first glance the cabin looked like “a piece of junk,” more careful inspection revealed its historical significance.
Reed dated the property’s construction to the turn of the 19th century, saying it was likely built to house African-American freemen or slaves to owners of the nearby North Court Street mansions, according to a previous News-Post story. The logs were recycled from a previous structure, perhaps one built as early as the mid-1700s, he said.
And despite Habitat’s good intentions for the property — acknowledged by several other commissioners and residents — approving demolition for a building that decayed in part because of the organization’s failure to maintain the property set a bad precedent, Albee said.
“I think we send the wrong message by allowing the demolition of this building,” she said.
The commission’s vote may change at the August meeting, where the hearing will continue if more members are present. Martinkosky also told Pecora that Habitat could contest the commission’s decision, although disputing commission decisions happens infrequently.
If the commission approves the demolition, a local buyer has already said he will buy the vacant lot from Habitat. Ron Hemby, who owns Hemby Custom Homes, told The News-Post previously that he plans to build a house on the vacant lot similar to those his company has already begun constructing down the street at 122, 124 and 126 E. Fifth St.
Hemby declined to comment on the Thursday decision because he has an interest in the property’s demolition, but said he would not be interested in buying the property if the cabin weren’t torn down.
The money from the sale would support Habitat’s homeownership program, which helps qualified residents buy a home with an interest-free mortgage.
“We’re trying to create affordable housing,” Pecora said. “This gives us a black eye with trying to do that.”
The Historic Preservation Commission’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13.