A Cabin’s Tale: The two sides to Montgomery County’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Shortly after the Washington Post published its article on Montgomery County’s purchase of the property long believed to be the “real Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation published a blog post reporting on the Post story. Titled, “Preservation Round-Up: Snafu! Edition,” the National Trust’s post was roundly criticized by Montgomery County preservationists. On November 30, 2010, two Montgomery Preservation, Inc., officers wrote a guest blog post for the National Trust for Historic Preservation titled, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Beyond History and Interpretation to the Internet.” Continue reading

Montgomery County employees working on PR, not parks, letters to newspapers show [updated]

Updated December 2, 2010

Montgomery County residents see a bleak future for vital public services and amenities due to an evolving budget crisis. Over the past several weeks, we have learned that public safety jobs may be cut and that revenues continue to disappoint county leaders. So in times that demand austerity, I wonder why Montgomery County officials believe we have the resources to undertake a public relations campaign to promote the development of the park formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? Continue reading

Montgomery County wants to spend $5 million on Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Montgomery County Planning Department will hold a work session next week on the proposed Josiah Henson Special Park master plan. Today, the Montgomery County Parks Department posted its staff memo to the Planning Board detailing its cost estimates to develop the park. Parks Department staff estimates that it will cost between $3 and $5 million to implement the option recommended at the October 28, 2010 hearing. Continue reading

Montgomery County refuses to release “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” records

The Montgomery County Parks Department has spent more than $100,000 on historical and archaeological consultants to do research at the Josiah Henson Site (formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Except for the archaeology reports, you can read all of the consultants’ work at the park’s website. If you want to read about the archaeology done at the site, you are out of luck. Continue reading

Montgomery County’s historic preservation law is broken and needs a tune-up

The landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision in Penn Central Transportation v. New York City is sacrosanct to historic preservationists. The case settled the question of the constitutionality of local historic preservation landmarking laws. Penn Central and a handful of other precedents are historic preservationists’ first line of defense when lawmakers attempt to rewrite historic preservation laws like Montgomery County’s 31-year-old ordinance, a law sorely in need of a legislative tune-up.

Last year, Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp attempted to amend Chapter 24A of the Montgomery County Code, the county’s historic preservation law. The councilmember who decided to not seek re-election this year wanted to revise the law by removing a controversial criterion for historic designation and by including provisions for owner consent prior to any property being designated historic. Continue reading

Building MoCo eruvim: Architecture and material culture (updated)

This is the second post in the series, Courtyards of Convenience: Montgomery County’s Eruvim


The Capital Beltway carries I-495 through Washington, D.C.’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The iconic 64-mile highway completed in 1964 is a symbolic barrier between Washington and the rest of the nation. The dichotomy, inside versus outside the Beltway, has permeated popular culture.

National Capital Beltway showing portions adjacent to Montgomery County eruvim. Adapted from Bing Maps. Click on the image to see a full-size version.

A four-mile segment of the Beltway in Montgomery County, Maryland, acts as another symbolic boundary. Areas within this segment have been incorporated into the perimeters of two Orthodox Jewish eruvim that wrap around parts of Silver Spring and Wheaton creating symbolically enclosed spaces that allow Jews to move within them on the Sabbath. Continue reading

Were MoCo and MD State government officials and the press duped in 2006 about the real “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

International media attention — from CNN, NPR, the New York Times, the Times of London, and others — was focused on Montgomery County, Maryland, in the winter of 2005-2006 as the county bought what it thought was “the real Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Five years and nearly $2 million later, the Montgomery County Planning Board is holding a public hearing Thursday October 28 at 7:00 PM to take testimony on proposed Parks Department plans to develop the property formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and to formally change the park’s name by removing the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” label.

Continue reading

MoCo Bar for historic preservation must be set higher

Op-ed from today’s Montgomery Gazette
Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

In 2009, County Councilmember Mike Knapp proposed legislation to amend the county’s historic preservation ordinance. At the time, I was chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and I provided vigorous testimony opposing the amendment and I wrote an opinion piece published in The Gazette [“Historic preservation: Who’s to decide?” March 11, 2009].

One of the designated properties I frequently pointed to at the time as a Montgomery County historic preservation success story was the property then known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I now know that some of what I wrote and said was wrong. For much of the 20th century, oral tradition in Montgomery County suggested that a small log building on the Old Georgetown Road property was used by Josiah Henson, the former slave whose autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Continue reading

Silver Spring World’s Fair Home Featured at National Building Museum

Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s is a new exhibit opening Saturday at the National Building Museum and running through July 10, 2011. The exhibit includes a section on a house built in the North Four Corners part of Silver Spring: Washington’s 1939 New York World’s Fair Home. As far as the available evidence suggests, the Silver Spring developers who received a license from the New York World’s Fair Corporation were the only ones who built an exact duplicate using the plans and material specifications for the demonstration home that was on display in the Long Island fair in 1939 and 1940. Continue reading

Historic Preservation: Rubber Stamp or Healthy Debate?

I am catching a lot of flak over “blowing the lid off of Uncle Tom” as one colleague commented in an email earlier today. I suspect that I’ll be catching even more over the next week or so as various things work their ways through local newspapers. So why did I write what I did about the Josiah Henson Special Park (formerly known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin)? Continue reading