By Grace Apostol
The John H. Newman Armory, located in Chestertown, Md., is the subject of debate. Since August 2022, the discussion to keep the armory standing, or to demolish it, has been ongoing.
According to the “Department of Planning: Maryland Historical Trust” website that discusses Maryland’s National Register Properties, the armory was built in 1931 by the State of Maryland and was the base for “for Company G, 115th Battalion of the 29th Division of the Maryland National Guard,” during World War II.
This battalion, according to an article published by The Star Democrat on May 16, 1993, was part of the force that landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Within this Battalion was “medical detachment” Sergeant First Class John H. Newman, after whom the building is named.
Besides holding the 115th Battalion, the armory served as a community center for Chestertown to gather and hold events. Some of these events included “dances and cotillions, local hospital benefits, and other social functions,” according to the “Department of Planning: Maryland Historical Trust” website.
However, according to President of Washington College Dr. Michael Sosulski, in a letter to the Editor of Chestertown Spy published October 2022, in 2005 the Maryland Guard decided to abandon the historic building.
“The 155th infantry regiment, which called the armory home, was merged with the 105th, leaving the facility without a tenant,” he said. “This occurred during a time of consolidation in the military and as is the process, the armory building and property was offered to Kent County and Chestertown.”
After the move to desert the building, the State of Maryland offered the building to Chestertown in 2012.
During the time of the offer, according to the Zoning Administrator for the Town of Chestertown Kees de Mooy, the College also became interested in the building due to its proximity to the Chester River.
“[The armory] adjoined other waterfront parcels that they owned and which they planned to develop into a waterfront campus, now substantially completed with the new facilities for the rowing and sailing programs and the Center for Environment and Society,” de Mooy said.
The College and Chestertown agreed, and the state granted the town the armory in December 2012. In early 2013, the building was sold to the College by Chestertown.
This purchase came with numerous conditions, including granting “an easement for a public waterfront walkway and provide public access to the property at least five times per year once it was renovated,” according to de Mooy.
According to de Mooy, “a stipulation in the deed that ‘the property shall be used solely for governmental and/or educational uses’ was provided when the State gave the armory to Chestertown.
According to Dr. Sosulski’s letter, part of the land property that the Armory sits on was used to build the Seman’s Griswold Environmental Hall in 2019 and the Hodson Boathouse in 2018.
Once these buildings were completed, the College considered making the building a hotel and conference center.
“As a non-profit institution, WC cannot operate a for-profit hotel and would therefore need to find investors willing to build and operate the hotel with the College leasing the property to that group,” Dr. Sosulski said.
Vice President of Marketing and Communications at WC Brian Speer also said that investors would be the only way for this project to occur.
“The College itself does not have the resources to undertake such a project, whether that be demolition and construction of a new facility or the renovation of the existing structure,” Speer said.
The College engaged with investors to be on board for this project. According to Dr. Sosulski, the project did not gain headway with surveys until 2022. However, the “various reasons” for this are unnamed.
During surveying, the College, according to Speer, had “prospective investors [that] provided positive feedback about a hotel in Chestertown and the potential of the historic armory as a location and provided funding to explore the feasibility of the project.”
According to Dr. Sosulski, the mold within the building presents many issues to potential investors, and there would be no benefit to repurposing the building that “will present ongoing health risks.”
“As a result, removing the building and replacing it with new construction that will commemorate both the historic building and the contributions of the 155th regiment presents the best-case scenario to make use of the property and to provide much needed hotel space for the benefit of the College, town, and county,” he said.
Due to this, WC submitted a request to demolish the building. According to de Mooy, on Oct. 5, 2022, Dr. Sosulski and former Director of CES John Seidel introduced their application to the Historic District Commission, who voted “unanimously to approve the demolition request.”
With the approval of the demolition came backlash from the Chestertown community due to the building’s historic state.
“The Armory is a site with strong historical connections through the members of the Maryland Army National Guard that were stationed there, some of whom fought in WWII,” de Mooy said. “For some of the surviving family members the Armory is a powerful reminder of the service and sacrifices made by their relatives.”
“I believe the contention comes from well-meaning yet mutually exclusive places on both sides,” Executive Director of the Historical Society of Kent County Patrick Jackson said. “The Armory long served as a communal feature…There is a feeling of nostalgia for the time it was used in that capacity and some see the potential for it to become a place for such activities once more.”
There were requests to revoke the approval appointed to the College by the HDC due to the discourse surrounding the demolition and the College’s failure to submit its application.
The HDC voted to revoke the approval on Nov. 2, 2022 and asked the College to resubmit their application request during the Dec. meeting. However, WC withdrew their application, stating they needed more time to review and prepare it.
Since this rebuke of approval and the withdrawal of the request, WC is working to address overlooks in their proposals.
“The College was asked to include additional information as part of its application to the town, so while that technically resulted in a withdrawal of application, it was merely a formality,” Speer said. “We are currently conferring with State offices to make sure we have not overlooked any information pertinent to the project.”
Though the College is receiving protests and complaints, the institution is standing with the idea of creating a hotel that will serve the College and the town alike.
Speer believes that using the Armory for education will benefit the College and its students, much like “the Inn at Elon University” and “the Alfond Inn at Rollins College.”
“Having a hotel and conference center would allow opportunities to host academic conferences and symposia, featuring student and faculty research activity,” he said.
Speer also expressed how the hotel and conference center would benefit the town and county “with a resource for hosting conferences and workshops, not just those of the College, but any community or professional organization.”
Though the College feels this is a significant opportunity, many town residents do not agree.
“When the State transferred the property to the Town, it included a stipulation in the deed that ‘the property shall be used solely for governmental and/or educational use,’ de Mooy said. “This explicit language seems to imply that the College’s intention to build a boutique hotel on the property does not meet the standard of ‘educational uses.”
In a Letter to the Editor to the Chestertown Spy, Jeremy J. Rothwell ’09, a senior planner for the town of Smyrna, Del., wrote to the paper to express his feelings about the demolition.
“I have no issue with WC profiting from the purchase and subsequent sale of real estate, but I take great offense to the college profiting off the destruction of an historic community resource,” Rothwell said.
According to Rothwell, while a boutique hotel and conference center would be welcome in Chestertown, tearing down a historic building is the wrong method for establishing one.
“I would expect this sort of behavior from sleazy big-city developers, but I would like to expect more out of my alma mater, WC. I’m only grateful that our local D-Day veterans did not live to see this,” Rothwell said.
With the opposing outlooks and opinions on each side of this debate, there is no telling when the College will reapply for this demolition, nor what those who protest this destruction will have to say when it occurs.
Jackson themselves hoped that all sides and respect of history would be looked at for the Armory, regardless of the outcome.
“In whatever capacity the debate is resolved, I do hope that this historic piece of the landscape of Chestertown is at least given its fair due and that all options be considered fully,” Jackson said.
How this issue will be resolved and whether or not the armory will be demolished still stands to be seen.
Photo by Grace Hazlehurst
Photo Caption: The Chestertown Armory has been a source of contention between the College and the town.