When Public Art and Historic Preservation Clash

Alex Pline is a founding member of Strong Towns and blogger at TeamPline.org. The following essay is inspired by our recent Public Art Week. Read more on public art from Strong Towns.

Main Street Annapolis (Source: Wikimedia)

Main Street Annapolis (Source: Wikimedia)

Annapolis is the historic capital city of Maryland and harkens back to the colonial days of the United States. The city’s core contains a lot of the historic fabric from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s including gems such as the Maryland State House where the Continental Congress met in the 1780s, the William Paca House (1760s) and many others.

While there was some significant demolition in parts of the city over time, fortunately the ravages of the urban renewal years did not gut any large sections of the core downtown and the influence of the automobile was minimal on the street size and configuration. The preservation of historic character is, in large part, due to the efforts of organizations such as Historic Annapolis and through Maryland and Annapolis Statutes as implemented by the city Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Without these heroic efforts beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, much more of the historic fabric might have been lost.

Fast forward to the present. Annapolis is generally a healthy and thriving city and is a very strong tourist attraction thanks to the aforementioned history. However, like many towns and cities, it struggles at times to keep the core areas thriving for locals beyond the standard tourist attractions. Unlike the Main Street area which is governed by historic preservation rules, the area around nearby West Street has undergone quite a renaissance over the last 20 years with new shops and restaurants thanks to an innovative group of restaurant owners, artists and entrepreneurs who have coalesced the area into an “arts district”. This is partly the result of relaxed regulatory scrutiny on the neighborhood during a time of economic depression, or as Andres Duany says, “when government is not watching”. The neighborhood hosts grassroots events that would please any strong citizen like street festivals and a weekly “Dinner Under the Stars.”

A Clash of Control

Compare these two approaches to Main Street and West Street—one top-down with codified rules and regulations at multiple levels of government and one bottom-up, with a “try lots of ideas and see what works” mentality led by local citizens. When these two meet, in the case of public art, there is a clash of control.

While much of the arts district is outside the historic area boundary, there are a few buildings that aren't, and when one owner was cited for peeling paint, he enlisted a well known local artist to do the painting – with a mural. You can watch a time-lapse of that mural's creation below.

The response from the city was heavy handed, serving a court order to either repaint it or apply for a retroactive permit. While the HPC code does not specifically regulate paint, it does regulate “architectural alteration”. This means the owner would have been completely within his right to paint it a non-historically accurate (whatever that is) color, but the fact that there was “art” in the image made it an “alteration”. After boiling away all of the legal minutiae of this disagreement, it comes down to a control issue, not unlike those around little free libraries. To be fair, the city says they might approve this particular mural, but they want to make that determination themselves.

From our local press:

“We choose not to regulate paint,” said Lisa Craig, the city’s chief of historic preservation, in October 2015, “but when paint gets to the point where it obstructs or detracts from the architectural characteristics of the building, then they (commission members) have to make a judgment call." [...]

Buckley [the property owner] sees it as an attempt to merge West Street’s historic nature with Annapolis’ artistic sector. “We look at beautiful cities all over the world in Prague and in Paris and these cities they make things work with historic buildings and they understand juxtaposition,” Buckley said Friday. “But I feel like we’re not getting that same thing here. So, as it became bigger than us, we decided we would stand up.”

Voices from both sides from a movie trailer “Cataylst” about the mural by Power Play Creations.

Beyond the specifics of this particular interpretation of the Annapolis historic preservation code, this situation is a prime example of two schools of thought on how to build great places, but with diametrically opposed approaches. It represents the somewhat bipolar nature of Annapolis’ culture—some view change as positive while others see it as negative. 

For better or worse, the court case – at least this edition of it – was just resolved in favor of the city.

Tension between these cultures is certainly healthy, as monocultures are fragile. But when the argument is more about control than substance, in my opinion, the balance has shifted away from historic preservation’s original intent. Paint is truly ephemeral, as the arts community showed in their cheeky response by staging a “mural funeral” when a second mural was cited by the city.

While historic preservation is critical for cities such as Annapolis, with all of the problems that Annapolis has (and yes, even though we are a small city, we have many of the same problems larger cities have) spending money and effort on legal challenges is not an effective way to improve our city. Additional hurdles to revitalization based not on substance but control are the last thing America's cities and towns need.

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Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team. You can find Alex's writing at Team Pline.