Historic kind of recycling

An old treatment plant becomes a cultural resource.

September 04, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

At Historic London Town and Gardens, the Colonial seaport outside Annapolis, even the new building isn't entirely new.

It's mostly an abandoned sewage treatment plant.

Within weeks, construction of the $5.1 million visitor center-museum-archaeology lab will be nearly finished, with most of the work done below ground -- turning what used to be a concrete vault nobody wanted to talk about into a place officials hope will be a hub of discussion.

"It just breaks my heart when I see these sewage treatment plants going to waste all over the country," said the man who conceived of building in the plant, Jack Keene, chief of planning and construction for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Decades ago, the plant processed wastewater for a peninsula of what were mostly summer retreats. By 1982, with more cottages winterized and communities expanding, sewage flowed to a new, larger plant, said Betty Dixon, land use and environment coordinator for the county. The subterranean tank near where Almshouse Creek meets the South River was emptied.

In 1985, officials realized that an appropriately sized visitor center at London Town would overwhelm the county-owned park. Keene suggested that turning the sewage plant into a usable building was better than filling it with fly ash.

"I think the initial reaction of everybody was, `No, what are you really thinking?'" he said. "But then when people started looking at the structure and getting down into the structure and seeing how much space was available, and how sound it was, I think it did become an intriguing idea."

It was a decade before the idea took hold as part of a fresh look at enhancing the historic site, and then it took a few years to obtain the mix of federal, state and local dollars to bankroll it.

These days, its stucco not finished and surrounded by clumps of dirt and construction debris, the facility looks like two one-story, faded wood and glass structures. They are in scale with and have the same roofline as the re-created Lord Mayor's Tenement, which sits across a parking lot.

Starting in the fall, chairs and lab equipment will replace paint pails and bouquets of red-capped wires bursting from wallboard inside, as the center opens in stages over six months or more. Museum exhibits have yet to be designed.

Officials will rely on the center to anchor and interpret the 23-acre wedge that is becoming a living history park, providing visitors with a historical context for the excavations and re-creations they see.

The new building is part of a plan to increase educational programs and present visitors with an inclusive glimpse of Colonial times with re-creations of key features. The $7 visitor charge probably will be increased.

For years, presenting the big picture of what the thriving port was like 350 years ago has been difficult. Because there is barely any display space, visitors have been able to see few of the thousands of artifacts found in digs there.

"This will provide the background and the orientation for visitors for a site that features archaeology, history and horticulture," said Donna Ware, executive director of the park. "You take the multiple stories of London Town, the historic reconstruction of the town, the William Brown House, the historic gardens and the woodland garden, and provide a background and introduction to all those layers of the story."

London Town was a boomtown from 1683 to the mid-1700s, when tobacco was king. It was an import-export and transportation hub run by newly wealthy Scottish families. Tradesmen stayed. Travelers passed through the gateway to the Colonies. Britons gambled on sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to chance making fortunes in the New World. London Town was a destination for buyers and sellers not only of tobacco, but slaves and exotic goods from around the world.

Then it went bust. In 1747, the Colonial government decided against authorizing London Town as a tobacco port -- a death knell. The sole structure to endure to this day on park property is the most atypical of the town -- the William Brown House, a waterfront brick showplace that later served as the county's almshouse.

"We have such a rich history. It's basically the history of America," said County Executive Janet S. Owens.

She hopes the new center will encourage "a slow, quiet stream of people" and promote tourism to highlight the region's history -- about 20,000 people, plus 3,000 to 4,000 schoolchildren, visit London Town each year. That is the focus of a heritage area that begins with Annapolis and runs south, including London Town.

The new building is "very atypical," in part because creative reuses of older structures can be so challenging, said architect Richard D. Wagner, a partner in David Gleason Associates in Baltimore and director of Goucher College's master's program in historic preservation.

"The space is sometimes very tough to fit things into," he said.

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