Ocean City and the National Register of Historic Places Part I

Ocean City and the National Register of Historic Places Part I

Two National Register listings and the Case for more, and for local protective ordinances

National Register Ocean City Maryland
St. Paul’s by the Sea Protestant Episcopal Church, 1900-01, 301 Baltimore Avenue. Photo by Robert M. Craig.

From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid...

One of my favorite quotes concerning the significance of good architecture and art in the life of a community is an observation by John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic.  Ruskin’s deliciously flamboyant Victorian prose was an art in and of itself, and in his day his writings on architecture became a Bible for many practicing architects in England, America, and elsewhere.  Ruskin’s ideas were so sweeping as to be considered universal truisms by many, but his critical eye focused as well on the particular and analytical, that is on details that make the difference.  He critiqued individual artists, and commented on specific built works which he could exalt or dismiss with the sweep of a pen.  Some of his pronouncements were formulaic; others were among the broadest of theoretical brushstrokes of his day—what makes “good and great architecture” (and why) was his constant theme.  Not everyone agreed with him, for instance, that Gothic was always superior to classic, but how we admire the way he argued for his aesthetic causes!  Thus, Ruskinian quotes became watchwords for posterity, and among these expository gems was Ruskin’s famous observation penned in the preface of his 1885 work, St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, in which he said, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts; —the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”1

Ruskin was essentially telling us that to understand a society, its true spirit, we should look at the buildings it produces and the art it creates.  Even more than the great deeds or the words of great men, art, including architecture, constitutes the most trustworthy signature of a civilization.  I often think of this quote as I travel and as I observe the environment around me—how people furnish and decorate their homes, how (or if) a community adorns its streets and public places with beautiful public art, how (or if) a town or neighborhood district or metropolis preserves its historic architecture and how it enhances its urban environment with new work.  Are the contemporary buildings truly excellent, as they have been for decades in Columbus, Indiana, for instance, or is the architecture generally and demonstrably mediocre.   And most of all, I am interested in whether a community truly values its past and preserves its historic architecture.

One indication of a citizenry’s attitude toward history, historic buildings, and the preservation for posterity of noteworthy architecture, is the National Register of Historic Places.  Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. The Register is part of a fifty-state program “to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”2  As of 2019 there are more than 95,000 properties listed on the National Register representing 1.8 million contributing resources including buildings, sites, historic districts, structures, and objects.  Almost every county in the United States has at least one place listed.  Worcester County Maryland has thirty-three National Register properties.

One would think that a Maryland resort town like Ocean City, founded in 1875 and now visited by over 300,000 people during a summer weekend (and thus the largest city in Maryland outside of Baltimore) would have taken specific steps to identify and protect historic buildings that vacationers might visit for years to come—architecture that citizens can continue to admire as they walk the boardwalk, observe the townscape from the beach, or drive along the town’s historic streets.  Nothing had been done toward this end before the creation in 2000 of the Ocean City Development Corporation charged with revitalizing the downtown.   But any expectation of protection goes beyond putting plaques on selected buildings and creating a three-fold tourist brochure giving addresses of interesting historic structures, because walking tours don’t actually protect the built works themselves. Façade improvement grants are helpful in encouraging renovations.  But what is ultimately needed in order to protect our architectural heritage is the passage of local ordinances tied to design guidelines informing alterations which are specifically overlaid onto National Register-listed districts, individual properties, or National Register-eligible properties. 

Local ordinances?  “What about my property rights?” some people are quick to complain, arguing that no one should dictate what they can or cannot do with their property.  Indeed, the general welfare clause of the constitution allows a community to adjudge what limits and guidelines the community finds acceptable, and to legislate additional requirements that some property owners might perceive to be a compromise (albeit minor) to individual property rights.  I say “additional” because under the same clause, we already limit individual property rights. Such limitations are inherent in zoning codes and building permits established to protect the  health and safety of occupants, requirements that already dictate and limit what a property owner can and cannot do with his property. Fire codes, height restrictions, property set backs requirements, building material specifications, etc.  limit property owners all the time through codes established to insure that buildings create fewer visual intrusions, avoid water run off problems, protect against structural failures, and now even discourage energy waste.  That visual aesthetic intrusions on the public psyche might join such property rights compromises is not unreasonable, if a community values the historic and aesthetic merits of the whole, what the general welfare clause assumes to be the public good.   

So, in the spirit of contributing to the general welfare of a society, to a community’s collective “pursuit of happiness,” as Jefferson phrased it, enlightened communities national wide have established, indeed have legislated, design guidelines governing restoration of, and alterations and additions to, historically significant local buildings in the community.  The renovation guidelines are applicable to properties in designated historic districts or identified as individual historic properties (either listed on, or eligible for, the National Register).  By this means, with the general welfare in mind, society at large does not allow individual property owners, or agencies responsible for historic properties,  carte blanche to “improve” or to alter in incompatible ways our landmark historic buildings —our Monticellos or Mount Vernons.  Community-generated and approved guidelines for renovations in a historic district, or alterations/additions to a designated landmark, trumps, to a degree,  the individual’s “right,”  to do what he pleases with his own property.

A misconception is that prescribed architectural guidelines would dictate paint colors (which they do not), prevent alterations or additions to a privately owned structure (which they do not) etc etc   Although guidelines and a review committee might discourage the repainting in purple and mauve stripes of the white classical dome of a National Register-listed landmark building, or, indeed, block the intention of a property owner even to demolish a designated building entirely in order to erect a gas station on the site, the property owners rights to do either remains.  On the other hand, the availability of professional technical advice regarding historic restoration, the publication of guidelines aimed at alterations that are compatible with existing historic fabric, and a general advisory role regarding context is available and the community decides the criteria by which a review committee can approve or deny certificates of appropriateness and ultimately building or demolition permits. National Register designation coupled with local protective ordinances are aimed at maintaining the historic merits of the whole—whether that whole is the original historic building, the streetscape, or the entire historic district.  National Register listing and local ordinances have helped to preserve Savannah squares, New Orleans’ French Quarter, Charleston’s historic Battery district, and those many admired local streetscapes and historic districts across America that in the context of the local community’s values are deemed worthy of  preservation intact.   In the same spirit that we demand building permits, occupancy certificates, and even demolition permits, many communities require certificates of appropriateness when property owners of historic landmarks seek to alter, repair, add to, or renovate a National Register property.

Thus, the fact of merely listing a property on the Register does not trigger any real protection without local ordinances.  Many believe listing is only honorary, although the use of federal funds to adversely affect a National Register listed property is discouraged by National Register requirements.  This, if a project is proposed for a new federal highway, or a street widening, or any of a number of government projects that might potentially impact a historic property, such street widenings or new routing of roads would trigger a review process that at various times and places in the past, has ultimately stopped development projects  that threaten National Register properties.  A well conceived city ordinance protecting its National Register properties and districts can empower a community to safeguard its valued assets (public and private) from developers who are insensitive to the historic status and design merits of a listed landmark property. A community that passes such local protective ordinances understands its role as a steward of the town and its architecture:  Although as “owners,” we may be temporary proprietors of the historic property, we may not have created the asset (as architect or client) nor will we own it during the lifetimes of future generations.   We are merely stewards of a history others created and a legacy we pass along.   So yes, the community at large can impose certain restrictions on our use or misuse of the property. 

Ocean City already has a virtually sacrosanct law protecting one of its greatest physical assets from private or public development.  The beach is protected by custom and zoning: no buildings are to be erected east of the boardwalk, because preserving the beach in its entirety is considered important to the general welfare.  But in the larger urban environment (throughout the town and barrier island), what individual buildings and sites ought we to preserve?  Visit any town or city in the U.S. and the evidence of the public’s sense of value is reflected in what historic districts and individual properties are listed on the National Register.   Through listing, a citizenry declares, “We value this historic site or this work of architecture, and it is through this architecture —these identified and listed historic places—that we fulfill our trust and, in Ruskin’s terms, write our autobiographies for posterity.   

What does it say about our community that there are only two historic Ocean City properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places? No historic districts and only two individual properties!   It is difficult not to conclude, despite the existence of local historic societies and a handful of individuals who understand the value of historic conservation, that this fact reflects a fundamental cynicism of the town toward the preservation of its historic past.  Some say there remains little worth preserving, that an architectural history of Ocean City would necessarily be a very thin volume indeed. But do we fundamentally maintain a limited appreciation of “the best that has been thought and said” in our community, which was Mathew Arnold’s definition of culture.  Great architecture attests to a people with noble thoughts, Ruskin tells us.  We write our autobiographies for our children through the art and architecture we bequeath to them.

Instead of demanding excellence in architecture and preserving the best of our past, Ocean City thinks of its hotels, motels, and commercial buildings as an inventory of commodities in a quintessentially commercial enterprise, requiring regular rotation of stock.  It’s almost as if our past architecture has a “best used by” date, encouraging demolition and replacement as spoiled goods after a stamped period of time.  So we throw out an old container as out of date for consumption.  As for the continuing aesthetic merits and surviving functionality that sensitive restoration can offer, the consumer society by its actions denigrates the old and embraces the new, however bland and lacking in aesthetic nutrition the concrete motel chain or “sunsational” tee shirt glass box may be.  Ocean City collects post cards, instead.  Images of the past are deemed adequate merely to remember what the historic streetscape of Baltimore Avenue looked like when it was lined from lst Street to 15th Street with traditional cottages, picket fences, fourplex apartment blocks, and tourist homes. Other towns renovate, adaptively re-use,  and preserve the actual buildings.  In Ocean City a boardwalk hotel is vandalized, its lobby converted to a less than sophisticated restaurant for Everyman, and murals are painted on the restaurant wall reproducing old post cards in order to show what the historic building looked like in the first place.  This is circular aesthetics and “virtual” preservation of the worst kind—our historic building fabric and architectural landmarks reduced to two dimensional images and called historic awareness. 

And what, indeed, has the town allowed to take place along its historic boardwalk!   A place that ought to have been given reverential treatment over the years as the primary face of the city— the town’s boardwalk frontage— is today a polyglot array of remodeled facades, displaced elegance, and uncouth aesthetics.  We can no longer remember what the classical portico of the Stephen Decatur Hotel looked like, or admire the shingles, triple deck porches, and awnings of the Hampton House cottage.  Cottage scale is no longer highest and best use, so actual houses on the boardwalk are rare.  During the summer we make money; during the winter we tear something else down.  We have become increasingly accustomed to a genuinely awful modern resort building tradition, to concrete block mediocrity, egg crate balconies, and ubiquitous tee shirt shops.  Our boardwalk frontage is now a commercial strip not even worthy of suburbia, an aesthetic wilderness that has displaced urbane verandahs, hotel porches occupied by stylishly dressed couples, and rocking chairs —the aesthetic today is what William Morris, even in the 19th century, called crass commercialism at odds with arts and crafts.  Virtual Ocean City and this sad state of a displaced Ocean City, have thus preserved little of the community’s real history.  And every winter another Queen Anne house or shingle clad ocean front hotel or charmingly picturesque cottage is razed in the name of progress. 

Even modern architecture is being lost.  The so called Motel Row, extending from 15th to 33rd Street along the ocean front had emerged during the 1950s and ‘60s as a notable collection of Mid-Century Modern architecture.  The original Santa Marie Motel, Stowaway Motel, Miami Court, and other early motels, with their period signage and swimming pools, offered a collection in Ocean City of the very thing that Robert Venturi taught us to admire as genuinely American roadside architecture.  Venturi wrote that we can find the extraordinary even in the ordinary, that vernacular architecture is worth knowing and admiring, and that even a Motel Row, like Ocean City’s once was, is evidence of the value of “learning from Las Vegas.”   The Sandy Hill, Fountain Court, Flamingo, and Surf and Sands motels were small-scaled, locally owned, mom and pop establishments, while the motel as a building type  (a conflation of motor-hotel) was an  embodiment of a national phenomenon of tourism in a mobile society,  characteristic of, indeed defining,  the post-war era.  Some Ocean City motels were plain, like the Sea Scape; others had a bit of pizzazz with reference to contemporary events, such as the Sputnik-inspired Satellite Motel. Some, like the Castle in the Sand Motel, offered romantic or exotic imagery.  Motel row north of 15th Street developed into a Mid-Century Modern historic district, recognized but never so designated nor protected.  In addition, a Mini-Me motel strip developed along the south side of Route 50 just west of the Harry Kelley Bridge, with most of those historic motels now gone.

In the end, even our newer historic buildings are disappearing.  Today, as we consider the National Register of Historic Places, we find ourselves with only two properties in Ocean City listed on the Register, our country’s digest of significant places worthy of preservation.  What are the two buildings?  In 2008, spearheaded by local preservationist Diane Savage with the National Register application written by Paul B. Touart,  St. Paul’s by the Sea Protestant Episcopal Church (1900-01) became the first property in Ocean City to be listed on the National Register, a listing of valued historic sites that had been established a full 42 years earlier.  What took us so long?   St. Paul’s  was, and is, a self-evidently notable  piece of local architecture, shingle clad with a picturesque corner bell tower, gable roof, and Gothic Revival design; the National Register listing included St. Paul’s adjacent shingle-clad rectory from 1923, a compatibly designed edifice that tragically burned in December 2013.   Significant locally, the church also reflects national trends in Episcopal church architectural design, and it preserves glorious stained glass windows executed by the nationally known J & R Lamb Studios, America’s oldest continuously-run decorative arts company.  Lamb Studios was established by Joseph and Richard Lamb in Greenwich Village, New York in 1857, even before the studios of John LaFarge or Louis C. Tiffany began operation, even before Ocean City was established.    J & R [Lamb] Studios continues its stained glass manufacturing, restoration, and reparation activities, headquartered today in Midland Park, New Jersey.   

The second National Register property in Ocean City is the Captain Robert S. and Virginia M. Craig Summer Cottage, “Bay Breeze,” located at 706 St. Louis Avenue.  The house is a well preserved and relatively typical 1 ½ story gabled summer cottage constructed of concrete block and with its original features intact inside and out.  A flat-roofed two bedroom apartment, physically attached to the rear, was added in the early 1960s, about the time a tool shed from a nearby property was moved to the Craig site and converted into an efficiency apartment.  Robert S. Craig was captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol when he built Bay Breeze cottage about 1949-50, and for many years his home was also the unofficial headquarters of the beach patrol.  Lifeguards initially rented rooms downstairs, while the family slept in a dormitory attic space under the half story gable, first accessed by a ladder, not a staircase! The apartment units in the back also provided housing for lifeguards from the 1960s until about 2015.  Although the Craig cottage has been fully restored and maintains its historic integrity, it is not listed on the National Register as a landmark of grand architecture but as a vernacular building of historic importance to the town, recognizing Virginia Craig’s role, among pioneer women proprietors, in the tourist home and hotel industry, and Captain Craig’s historic role as a lifeguard for 52 years and head of the OCBP from 1942-1987.  The official listing in December 2017 was seven months before what would have been Captain Craig’s 100th birthday. 

The natural question that follows is what Ocean City properties should come next for listing on the National Register of Historic Places?  As an architectural historian, I shall not be shy in recommending a few buildings whose owners might consider such a step. The Maryland Historical Trust in Annapolis (the state agency that serves as the Maryland State Historic Preservation Office) can advise and most importantly the office can dispel misconceptions about National Register listing and what such recognition does and does not mean.  Therefore, a forthcoming essay in the series, From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid, will propose “top ten” picks for National Register Listing of Ocean City properties, a list sure to generate debate and controversy.  Every effort should be made, in any case, to preserve the ten properties.

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Header Image: Captain Robert S. and Virginia M. Craig Summer Cottage, “Bay Breeze,” 706 St. Louis Avenue.  Photo by Robert M. Craig.”   

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Sources:

  1John Ruskin, St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice (London:  George Allen, 1894, 2nd ed.)  vii.  St. Mark’s Rest was previously  published in six parts.  See also The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: G. Allen, 1903 1912), vol. 24, pp. 191ff.

2National Register of Historic Places  web site, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/index.htm  accessed December 18, 2019

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