Hagerstown’s political leadership and business community seem to be nearing a consensus on downtown redevelopment, prompting growing excitement for the city’s path forward. Part of that excitement is the opportunity to link projects in the city’s future to the rich architectural history of its past. A recent arrival to Hagerstown told me the other day how much she enjoyed the community, the people and especially the buildings throughout the city. It’s a reaction we hear often, people unfamiliar with the area marveling at the cityscape that we see — and often look past — every day.
The charm of our city is not so much a single “Hagerstown style” but rather a building history that reflects different periods of our prosperity, through both individual examples and entire neighborhoods. Not every building is worthy of note, of course, but a quick look at the architecture of Hagerstown shows 2 1/2 centuries of a community not only doing well for itself but also looking to the latest building designs to project a sense of who we are.
Our community came into its own — and established its identity as Washington County — in the late 18th century, and the county’s stone houses and picture-perfect farmsteads remind us of that early prosperity. The city has better examples from the early 19th century as craftsmen and merchants began to build what would become a trade and transportation hub. The Historical Society’s Miller House is just one Federal style example from that period whose builder used his house’s rich detail, fine craftsmanship and latest design to project his wealth and status.
Through the 19th century, Hagerstown continued to grow, and with that growth came a steadily increasing stock of houses, shops and public spaces. Buildings came and went, and individually, few of them stood out as spectacular. Collectively, however, they created the city’s sense of place as a prosperous community reliant on trade, transportation and manufacturing.
Hagerstown’s 19th century wealth continued well into the 20th and gave us the legacy we see today: a built environment of substantial residential and commercial structures woven around public buildings and transportation infrastructure. During this period, those investing and building in Hagerstown continued to look to the latest styles and fashions in architecture. As a result, a drive through Hagerstown today is a survey of the history of American architectural design. The Revival movements, for example, are well represented on West Washington with the Romanesque (the old Holiday Motel) and Tudor (Tiger’s Eye Benefits). On North Potomac and South Prospect, we have wonderful houses in the Gothic, Mediterranean and Colonial revival styles. Beaux Arts classicism is here, too, in the Masonic Lodge and the former offices of RBC Wealth Management, both on South Potomac. More subtle — still on South Potomac — are the Prairie-Style windows of the Shindel-Rohr Building (now 28 South Restaurant) and the nod to Art Deco in the Professional Arts Building on the Square.
This list goes on, but even a quick glance at what the city already offers adds another level of excitement to downtown revitalization. The large-scale reshaping of Hagerstown can add energy to the city’s existing design without stripping away its history. And a “creative class” of entrepreneurs can link the legacy of Hagerstown’s architectural history with a 21st century redefinition of the workplace. To make all that happen, though, politicians and business leaders need to ensure that Hagerstown’s next era of prosperity leaves an architectural legacy as powerful as those of the past.
Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.