Seeking to protect Annapolis' heritage

Concerns: Preservationists say the city needs to do more to enforce laws and educate owners in maintaining its historic architecture.

September 27, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

On a stroll through Annapolis' quaint downtown streets, Donna Hole, the city's preservation chief, points out how the historic district is eroding brick by brick.

She kneels on an East Street stoop to show where the home's 18th-century bricks are wearing away because the owner patched it with the wrong kind of mortar. Then she points out standard hardware-store porch balusters that are inappropriate for a Pinkney Street rowhouse.

At another East Street home, she stops to talk to a contractor who is refurbishing historic windows and notes she frequently gets word of someone ripping out historic windows and replacing them with modern ones.

These might seem like petty grievances, but Hole and other preservationists say the details make all the difference in maintaining the character of the state capital's 3-century-old downtown.

"What we are talking about is the historic fabric of Annapolis: the bricks, the mortar, the wood siding, the roofs, the windows, the doors," says David Blick, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews historic-district projects. "We are slowly erasing the `historic,' and pretty soon we are not going to have what we are trying to preserve."

Some blame a lack of education about the rules. Others point out that unlike some other historic cities, Annapolis does not have a staff to roam the streets and cite those who violate its historic-district rules.

Whatever the cause, preservationists say it is time for the city to do more to protect the architecture that distinguishes it and has made Annapolis a popular tourist destination with a thriving downtown.

"We are not Any City, USA," says Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "We are a very special place for a lot of different reasons, but principally for the look and feel of this city, which is rooted in its heritage."

Foundation created

The preservation movement in Annapolis began 50 years ago, when residents formed the Historic Annapolis Foundation to save historic downtown structures from the bulldozers of eager developers.

The group, led for many years by preservationist St. Claire Wright, began buying and renovating historic buildings and lobbying to preserve downtown - where the Treaty of Paris was signed, Gen. George Washington resigned his Army commission and Maryland's four signers of the Declaration of Independence had homes.

A year after the nonprofit got its start, the precursor to the Historic Preservation Commission was formed, the first such group in Maryland. It was not until a voter referendum in 1969, though, that the commission won its regulatory powers.

Today, Annapolis' historic district covers most of downtown and includes 1,100 structures. All exterior renovation or construction projects except paint require commission approval.

But as more people move into the historic district, preservationists say, seemingly innocent home improvement projects are threatening the integrity of the very structures saved from demolition. And, they say, the city doesn't have anyone making sure that homeowners comply with the rules.

Enforcement

On a typical day, Hole is not on the street surveying the historic district for violations - no one is. The only city employee trained in preservation, Hole manages the historic research program and acts as the administrator for the commission, talking to residents and granting administrative approval for minor projects.

When Hole was hired 10 years ago as the city's first full-time preservation staff member, she and the zoning enforcement officer enforced historic-district laws. But as the economy picked up, other zoning projects took precedence, leaving just Hole and her assistant to oversee preservation activities.

Other cities with historic districts do more to enforce rules.

Washington has two inspectors who drive around historic districts looking for violations and responding to complaints. In Alexandria, Va., three preservation staff members spend part of their time on enforcement, and the city's building inspectors are also trained in the historic-district laws.

But Annapolis' building inspectors are not trained in historic-district laws, and no one follows up on commission approvals to make sure that work is done right.

The result: a system of patchy enforcement in which complaints from neighbors and commission members are the only way violations come to Hole's attention, if they come at all.

"What we don't have is somebody going around and looking at all the minor detail things that are being done that nobody reports," says commission member Joan Kaplan. "If we are not enforcing those things, then time goes by and you can't go back and take care of it."

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