Historic commission takes on education role

April 25, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

If God is in the details, then the Annapolis Historic District Commission surely is blessed.

Not so much as a shingle can be replaced or a sign hung in Annapolis' historic district without the approval of the five-member government agency.

"We are keeping Annapolis a town which retains its character and doesn't become a honky-tonk," said the commission's vice president, Harrison S. Sayre.

At times, the volunteers who serve on the commission have been derisively called nitpicking naysayers. Now they are working to foster a more positive image.

The commission has published a brochure to help residents understand the approval process; is preparing to offer workshops on preservation techniques; is making an effort to tell applicants how they can improve their designs; and is considering an expedited process for sign approvals.

The actions exemplify an attempt to educate a community that after 25 years still doesn't understand the agency's role, said Commission Chairwoman Donna Ware.

People still recall the time the commission insisted that a resident remove a plastic rose trellis and install a wooden one. And the commission made headlines by opposing a comic book store's sign that depicted Spiderman.

Commission member Michael Ricketts said he asked Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins to appoint him to the board a few years ago after a frustrating experience in getting the commission to approve changes he wanted to make to his house.

"I thought it was a terrible process," he said. "Most of the time they told you that you couldn't do something, but wouldn't tell you what you could do."

At the commission's most recent meeting, the agency speedily approved a half dozen items that had no opposition, such as creating a new curb and putting a sign on a downtown store.

Then the commission settled down to hear the more controversial petitions. For almost a half-hour they discussed whether the replacement windows one couple wanted were compatible with their 19th century home. By the time the couple left, they had been told specifically what kinds of windows were acceptable.

With the same thoroughness, the commission deliberated a few months ago its biggest project ever -- the proposed $55.6 million county courthouse. Although visitors to the downtown courthouse may never notice whether the top of a window is curved or straight, those were the kinds of details that commanded the commission's attention.

While attempting to protect Annapolis' historic character, the commission's decisions often have been more liberal than some downtown residents wanted.

The commission decided neon lighting was in keeping with the character of some downtown buildings, although the City Council later tried to outlaw neon as too tacky for the colonial town. The commission waived height and mass restrictions and approved the new county courthouse, although ardent preservationists complained that the courthouse detracted from the ambience of the surrounding narrow streets.

Joan Abel, a commission member since 1991, said historic preservation has to be balanced with common sense. "History is compilation of all past periods, including last week," she said.

One reason for the new attempt to educate the public is to dispel the idea that the commission is capricious and arbitrary, Ms. Abel said.

"We try very consciously to be objective," she said. "We're not reacting to a proposal on the grounds of whether we like it or dislike it, but whether it meets the guidelines."

When the Historic District Commission was created in 1968, many of Annapolis' 18th- and 19th-century buildings were in sore shape, rotting from years of neglect or marred by tacky additions.

Some of the city's most beloved buildings, such as the William Paca House, and the Market House, narrowly escaped the bulldozer in the years just prior to the commission's creation.

Opponents of the historic district commission maneuvered to place the agency's creation before a city-wide referendum, but underestimated residents' concerns for preservation. The measure passed by an overwhelming majority.

As a result of the ordinance, Annapolis was able to resist efforts to develop high-rise condominiums and office buildings. Today, many of the city's narrow, tree-lined streets are flanked with stately federal- and Georgian-style brick homes looking much like they did two centuries ago.

The commission has jurisdiction over more than 1,000 structures in the district, which is bounded by the U.S. Naval Academy to the east, Spa Creek to the south, College Creek to the north and Calvert Street, City Gate Lane, Franklin Street and Southgate Avenue on the west.

The guidelines the commission enforces include prohibitions against vinyl siding, sandblasting brick and painting brick that never was painted. Although the commission tries to ensure that new construction harmonizes with the city's 18th- and 19th-century architecture, it frowns upon new buildings that try to copy the old.

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