Public square to be renovated

August 03, 1997


Staff Writer

Public Square - historically, the heart of Hagerstown - is about to undergo its second major reconstructive surgery within 22 years.

City leaders are hoping the $470,000, three-month reconstruction that starts Monday night will rejuvenate downtown's major arteries, encouraging business owners to give their own stores facelifts and in the process, a second wind.

"If it does anything it could be a catalyst for businesses to improve facades," said Councilman William M. Breichner.

If businesses are going to survive downtown, the area needs to be made more attractive to lure shoppers, Breichner said.

The goal of the square's 1975 renovation, which cost $524,000, was to trigger private redevelopment, which it did, said former Mayor Steven T. Sager. Sager became a city employee three months before the new square's dedication on Aug. 21, 1975, and it was under his last administration that the upcoming renovations were approved.


After the 1975 renovation, Loyola Federal, now American Trust, moved into the first block of North Potomac Street, Sager said.

The storefront of Fleisher Brothers in the square was painted for the first time in 50 years and businesses such as Routzahn's and Blue Cross/Blue Shield got renovated storefronts, he said.

But, time hasn't been kind to the renovated square.

"It is worn. It didn't age gracefully," Sager said.

One notable oddity of the last renovation were the bollards around the square's boundaries. Meant as a barrier between pedestrians and motorists, the cylindrical cement statues were destroyed in a 1988 "Bollard Bash" after drawing criticism from people who called them ugly and offensive.

Pieces of the square have been removed within the last year, including the police kiosk and the bus shelter after community leaders were able to move the County Commuter's transfer stop further west on West Washington Street.

Remaining are the fountain in the northeast quadrant that never materialized into the peaceful attraction it was intended to be and the southeast quadrant that isn't handicap accessible, said city leaders.

The upcoming renovation will improve those shortcomings and beautify the square. With proper maintenance, the new renovation should age gracefully and last for about 50 years, Sager said.

By thinning the pear trees in the four quadrants, the area will have a lighter, brighter feel to it that will allow people to see the architecture of the surrounding buildings better, city leaders have said.

There will be planters in each quadrant and outdoor tables for customers of the local restaurants.

Temporary stages will make the square a better host for events such as the downtown's summer concert series, said Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce officials.

"It will be more of what Public Square ought to be - a premiere public space," said Tom Newcomer, chairman of the chamber's downtown task force and co-owner of Carson Jewelers on the square.

"I hope more than anything it has a more pedestrian-friendly flavor," Newcomer said.

Hagerstown's heart

The square has always been a center to the town and to cultural and commercial interests.

"The town literally grew out from the Public Square," Sager said.

In the 1790s, Hagerstown's first City Hall was in the center of Public Square. The farmer's market was beneath it attracting local residents who traveled to the square by horse and wagon.

In the late 1930s, two-way traffic passed trolleys on Washington Street, going through a more circular square with parking spaces in the quadrants.

Breichner, 65, said he remembers that time period as a child, when the square was a bustling commercial center with a News Agency, Martha Washington Candies, Miller Furniture, Sears and Hagerstown Gas Co.

Sager, 43, remembers patrons parking in the square to register at the Alexander Hotel and driving around the Christmas tree in the center of the intersection during the holidays.

The 1975 renovation would square off the roundish intersection, eliminating parking and making traffic proceed in a more orderly fashion, said Dennis C. Miller, who was chairman of the chamber's downtown implementation committee at the time.

Downtown was on a decline when the renovation occurred, Breichner said.

Miller said renovating the square showed city officials really cared what was happening downtown - as does the planned renovation.

City leaders are "not going to walk away from downtown," he said.

The bigger picture

"The square is the focal point of the city. That's what everybody sees first when they see the city and you want to put your best foot forward," said Andy Singer, chairman of the Downtown Assessment District.

But, more is needed than renovating the square, business leaders said.

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