Montgomery County Planning Board Ends Preservationists’ Bid to Designate Silver Spring Church

Yesterday the Montgomery County Planning Board held a session to evaluate whether it should forward a draft amendment to the Master Plan for Historic Preservation that would have designated the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring as historic.

By unanimous consensus, the Planning Board elected to not have a draft amendment prepared, effectively killing the proposal to designate the church. The Planning Board deferred to the 6-2 vote by the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission that the property met none of the nine legal criteria for designation.

I wrote briefly about the local preservationists who pursued the designation in an earlier post and I plan a follow-up post on the many issues raised by this case. In the meantime, the testimony I submitted to the Planning Board is reprinted below. The local newspaper, the Montgomery Gazette, reported on the Planning Board’s decision in a post published at its Web site overnight.

Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
First Baptist Church of Silver Spring

Montgomery County Planning Board
June 23, 2011

Good afternoon Chairman Carrier and members of the Planning Board. For the record, my name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian with more than 27 years of experience in history and architectural history. I have a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Folklore and Folklife with a concentration in vernacular architectural history and my credentials have been found by the National Park Service and more than 20 state historic preservation offices to exceed the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualifications Standards in Architectural History, History, and Archeology.[1]

In addition to documenting and evaluating the historical significance of properties throughout the United States, I have worked in Maryland since 2000 and as the former chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission I testified before this board and others on matters relating to historic preservation.

The Church retained me to evaluate the designation documentation prepared by the Silver Spring Historical Society. I also conducted independent research on the property’s history. The results of my evaluation and research were presented in the report [PDF] presented to the HPC in advance of its March 23, 2011 hearing. Those studies led me to the conclusion that the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring meets none of the legal criteria for historic designation.

At the March 2011 hearing, the HPC voted against designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation and recommended not listing the property in the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites. As the county’s expert advisory body in historic preservation, the HPC weighed all of the evidence and found overwhelmingly that the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring meets none of the nine criteria for designation. The HPC’s vote was consistent with the findings I presented in my report to the church and which was provided to you prior to this hearing.

The Historic Preservation staff asks you to reject the HPC’s recommendation. The staff memo you received prior to this hearing adds no new substantive information and only restates information provided to the HPC at its March hearing.

At the March 2011 hearing I made several points and I would like to briefly revisit them with you today. My points are simple. The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring does not meet the legal criteria for designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. It is a complex of old, attached buildings with an interesting story. Neither the architecture nor the historical associations tied to it are historic, as that word is used in the master planning process.

My first point has to do with the architects involved in the various church construction projects undertaken between 1925 and 1957. None of the buildings in the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring’s complex qualifies as the work of a master. Historic Preservation staff concurs with the research I provided the church on that account.

My second point has to do with the architecture. The church complex includes a parsonage built in 1925 and altered in 1931; a rear addition to the parsonage built in 1931; an addition built in 1951; and, finally the 1956 sanctuary. Each of the additions to the parsonage – a building never intended to be used as a sanctuary or education building – was constructed after the church abandoned plans for much grander construction programs. There is no coherence to the various construction phases and each of the pre-1956 buildings has had character-defining features removed or altered. The 1956 addition is an unremarkable example of mixed architectural styles and was never considered an outstanding building by the architect who designed it, his peers, or the community.

My third point has to do with the fact that the church cannot be used as a placeholder at the Fenton-Wayne intersection because other, arguably more significant buildings like the Armory, have been demolished. The church’s historical setting has been irrevocably altered by the demolition of contemporaneous buildings and the construction of new mixed-use buildings that dwarf the church. Preserving this isolated building simply because other buildings no longer survive at this intersection is not sound preservation policy and is not consistent with the criteria for designation.

Finally, I would like to address the property’s historical significance. The research I conducted on behalf of the church relied on business records, architectural drawings, legal instruments, and other primary narratives. The nominators relied on scanned copies of newspapers and magazines and other incomplete and incorrect sources. The historical narrative they cobbled together was fatally flawed and rife with errors of fact and omissions. It did great violence to the church’s actual history. The historical record simply does not support the arguments for preservation based on the church’s historical associations.

The nominators would like for you to believe that they have wide support for their position from other historic preservation professionals. In fact, if you review the letters entered into the record at the HPC hearing, you will find that they are remarkably similar and they fail to introduce new substantive information about the church’s history or its buildings. My historic preservation colleagues did not have the benefit of the research I conducted for the church with which to weigh the assertions for significance contained in the designation documents submitted to the HPC.

Based on my research and my review of the nomination documentation, it is my professional opinion that the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring meets none of the historical or architectural criteria for designation in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. It is also my opinion that the HPC correctly weighed all of the evidence you now have before you and made the only recommendation possible under Chapter 24A of the Montgomery County Code: The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring does not merit listing in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation nor in the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites.

[1] Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines, Professional Qualifications Standards, 48 FR 44716, et seq.

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