Main St. structures review set for today

Architect specializing in historic buildings to visit six sites

May 19, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

An architect from a firm specializing in historic buildings is expected to visit a half-dozen downtown sites today, a benefit of Westminster's having been selected last year for the Main Street Maryland program.

"We're very excited," said Donovan G. Hammond, the city's new Main Street coordinator and community development specialist.

The architect will visit each site for 45 minutes to an hour and sketch ideas, he said. About two weeks later, site drawings, complete with specifications and cost estimates, will be sent to Hammond at the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The architect, Richard Wagner of David H. Gleason Associates in Baltimore, also directs the graduate program in historic preservation at Goucher College. His firm specializes in historic buildings and has done Main Street Maryland projects in Oakland, Easton, Charles Village, Cumberland and Mount Rainier in Prince George's County.

"The vast majority of our work is in historic or older buildings," Wagner said. "We've done them from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Washington, D.C."

In Maryland, in addition to the Main Street contract work, the firm has worked on projects in Calvert County, Easton and Sykesville.

In Westminster, he'll look at the facades of buildings ranging from the 1880s to the 1930s, he said.

"We give the owner a sense of how the building could look to be rehabilitated and the cost," he said. "We don't do complete working drawings." Wagner said he'll take photographs and measurements, and talk with the owners about what they would like.

"Westminster overall is very cohesive," he said.

Wagner's itinerary today begins at 9 a.m. and includes: Davids Jewellers and Willow Bend Books on East Main Street; the Hickory Stick at Liberty and Green streets; and the Rexall Pharmacy and Rinaldo's Pizza & Subs on West Main Street.

The sixth site will be visited at the request of local attorney Kirk Seaman, who has asked the architect's advice for improving a house in the 200 block of E. Main St. for possible use as a law office, Hammond said. Each visit lasts about an hour and includes a discussion of the image the owner would like to project, with practical details such as signs and colors.

"The way the downtown looks is important to the way it's perceived," Hammond said. "Any time you can offer this type of service to the business community, it's a good thing. We hope to tackle landscaping services next."

The architect's services are available to the town for a second day, said Hammond, who is seeking other property owners to fill up another day, probably next month. "It's first-come, first-served." Karen Blandford, manager of housing and community development, said, "One of the most valuable services provided by the program is an architect who works with property owners who want to improve their facades."

The architect can look at the front and rear of downtown buildings that are within an area encompassing most of Main Street, from Washington Road to Pennsylvania Avenue and about one block on either side, she said. The only requirement is that the building be in the Main Street area, which corresponds to the downtown revitalization district and the 1994 consultants' report that set the wheels in motion.

"To broach the subject with a business owner about how the front of their building looks is a tricky subject," Hammond said. The Main Street program does not pay for the improvements, but there is no obligation to the property owners.

The Westminster Common Council passed two ordinances last month to encourage improvements to historic properties: a tax credit and a guarantee that property tax assessments will not increase as a result of the improvement for 10 years.

The state's Main Street program is an outgrowth of the older National Main Street Center, begun more than 20 years ago by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, to revive and preserve small communities. It provides free technical assistance from participating experts.

Wagner said he often finds original architecture covered up at the ground level, with "storefronts done over and over and over again, so they aren't compatible with the upper floors -- and the upper floors are wonderful."

In Cumberland, for example, he used old photographs -- then the owner used a crowbar -- to find a building's original 7-foot-high double-hung windows, in place since the 1890s after being covered inside by wallboard and outside by metal siding. Often, architectural touches such as cornices at the crown of a building or details above its windows are lost, and too costly to duplicate.

"We try to do something compatible but not to try to re-create," he said. "Plainer, but in the spirit."

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