Remaking history as a USM campus

October 29, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

If you got tired of looking at the deteriorating shell of the old Baldwin House complex in downtown Hagerstown, think about how Michael K. Day felt.

The Maryland Historical Trust official has worked on a variety of proposed renovation projects for that property since the mid-1980s. Last week he said that the current one, which will turn it into the Hagerstown Education Center of the University System of Maryland, has become a "model project."

Not that it has been easy. Day, a deputy director of the State Historic Preservation Office, told me that when it came to problems, the Baldwin House complex had "one of everything."

Wood rot, mold, lead paint and asbestos were there, as were the structural problems faced by the Whiting-Turner Company, which had to figure out how to replace the support provided to the complex by an old warehouse that had to be demolished.


For private developers who renovate to historic standards, there are a variety of tax credits available. For the University System, doing an historic renovation was required under the law, Day said.

"The reason they have to bother is that the state law says they have to bother," Day said.

But as the project developed, something remarkable happened, Day said.

"Somewhere in the middle of this project, the emphasis went away from 'we're doing this because we have to' and became more of a labor of love," Day said.

That doesn't mean that there weren't compromises that had to be negotiated, Day said.

"We had to decide on two levels (of the building) what could be saved and what should be saved and whether some of the materials that came out had to be replaced exactly," he said.

Because there was so much water damage, some of the historic flooring and molding could not be saved.

"On the upper floors, mold had gotten in between the floors and it was really a hazard," He said.

For plaster moldings that had been damaged beyond repair, Day said the trust allowed the contractor to take molds of remaining portions, then recreate them using an epoxy-type material. In areas where plaster walls were heavily damaged, Day said the contractor was allowed to replace it with drywall.

On the second floor, where the difference wouldn't be easily apparent from the street, Day said the trust allowed the use of double-pane thermal windows that will not create a doubled reflection when viewed.

In much of the building there is a material called scagliola, which is essentially a false marble. That will be repaired, Day said. In the portion of the building that was an old hotel - a five-story structure built in 1881 - Day said the original elevator doors will conceal electrical closets.

On the side of the complex where the old hotel once stood, the second floor above the retail space will be renovated to look just as it did in the late 19th century, including renovation of what Day said is "a really great wrought-iron staircase."

For the exterior renovation, Day said the contractor located old photos of the hotel in its heyday and will re-create the look of the storefronts as they existed then.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it was. But Day said that in spite of that "everybody got on the same page very early."

"The biggest piece that surprised me was how far the university and the contractor were willing to go to get it right," Day said.

Not only did they work on compromises, but the contractor agreed to build an entire room and part of a hallway to show the trust just what the completed work would look like, Day said.

Asked whether all this work was worthwhile, Day said that while historic renovation is often an economic-development tool, in this case the project has taken what was a white elephant and created something that will tie in with all the good work that's been done to renovate nearby Public Square. And let's not forget, it will also educate future generations of Washington County residents.

While we're on the topic of renovation, Julie Greene's story this past Sunday on the soaring price of rental units reminded me of something I wrote about in the early 1990s about the possibility of turning old apartment buildings into condominiums.

I got the idea from Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Olesker, who wrote about a Baltmore landlord named Fred Rovecamp, who decided that he wanted to sell his buildings, one unit at a time, to the tenants who lived there.

Back then the reaction I got from some local people was that the money you'd have to spend to renovate the units would price them out of most people's reach. But with people paying $700 a month now just to rent, it would seem they could afford to buy a reasonably-priced condo.

Of course, talking about it is the easy part. To make it a reality you would have to solve problems like how to resolve disputes between condo owners. But in a city like Hagerstown, where the percentage of those who own their homes versus those who rent is less than what it should be, this idea deserves another look.

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