Interview with Karen Brown
Vice President of Preservation for Historic Annapolis
What led to your interest in historic preservation and resilience planning?
I'm originally from Virginia, but my parents moved to Annapolis when I was an undergraduate student at James Madison. I fell in love with it immediately. It is such a beautiful town—it’s an elegant but comfortable, historic seaport. A few years later, I went to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in Urban Affairs and Public Policy with a concentration in historic preservation. My interest in community planning within a preservation-based context has really grown over the past couple years.
I had the pleasure of working at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. for almost a decade, and during that time I served on the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission. I took a couple years off to have kids, and when I came back, I started working with Lisa Craig in the Preservation Division at the City of Annapolis. Now I work at Historic Annapolis as the VP of Preservation. Historic Annapolis is the leading nonprofit preservation advocacy group in Annapolis that promotes protecting and preserving historic resources by providing engaging and educational experiences to connect the community with our heritage. My interest in sea-level rise and resiliency planning came out of working with Lisa. She was the real inspiration for the City’s ‘Weather It Together’ program. I was one of the boots-on-the-ground team members who participated in this interdisciplinary planning effort that spanned many departments and partners, and years of planning.
Hurricane Isabel came through in 2003 and it was unbelievable. People were kayaking in the streets, and our favorite breakfast place ended up going out of business as many local establishments couldn't economically recover. Experiencing the devastation of this natural disaster to our historic landscape first-hand had great meaning to me. Hurricane Isabel helped shape my understanding that our cultural landscape is extremely vulnerable and we need to plan now.
Can you talk about an ongoing project or one you or which you are most proud?
Shortly after I started with Historic Annapolis, we established a partnership with the National Park Service Chesapeake office. A project we just finished was an adaptive reuse plan for a 19th century waterman’s home located on the water’s edge at the foot of Prince George Street called the Burtis House. It's the sole surviving historic waterman’s home at City Dock and had been owned by the state of Maryland for many years. Unfortunately, it has been inundated by flooding, tidal surges and coastal extreme storm events over the years, so it’s quite vulnerable. The state recently decided that they wanted to divest themselves of the property, so it is being transferred to the City of Annapolis. Prior to the transfer, Historic Annapolis worked with a local architect to develop an adaptive reuse and stabilization plan for the building, to craft some recommendations for the City as they move forward. The plan identified both short-term and long-term resiliency strategies for the building. The ultimate recommendation is to elevate it five feet, so it's out of the floodplain.
About three years ago, there was a threat of insensitive development proposed adjacent to this this property that would flex the height and bulk restrictions in the historic district. Historic Annapolis is a strong advocate for the protection of the historic character defined by scale. In response to this threat, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Annapolis’ City Dock as an endangered site, which led to Historic Annapolis bringing in an Urban Land Institute technical assistance panel to help define a path forward. Through the panel, around 12 or13 professionals came from all over the country to provide expertise on various issues associated with City Dock. In this project, for example, we had a resiliency component, a maritime component, economic development and historic preservation components, among others. One of the recommendations in the final report was to create an action committee to see some of these recommendations carried forward.
Out of that the broader effort came a comprehensive resiliency plan for this central part of the historic district; a fundamental component of which is elevating a significant area adjacent to the water, along with other resiliency strategies to address issues of sea level rise, subsidence, tidal surges, and coastal flooding. This space is mostly parking right now. In this proposal, we would change it into an elevated green space, which speaks to the desire for more community gathering spaces and more greening while preserving the viewshed. It is a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort, but I’d like to think that this preservation threat was the catalyst that made it happen. The bringing in of outside expertise really helped stress the need for being proactive in terms of resiliency planning. The City Dock ‘transformed project’ is expected to cost $65 million, and a small component of the bigger project is the Burtis House resiliency plan. For now, the house is going to be the first piece of a future, resilient City Dock. Considering the fact that the building is going to be elevated five feet, basically in isolation, until the surrounding context is graded appropriately, the intent is to use the elevated foundation as a wraparound canvas for interpretive information. The intent is that it could serve as a canvas to showcase information on the impacts of sea-level rise on coastal communities but also to include historic images of what the property and community looked like in the past. This educational concept fits into the mission of Historic Annapolis to connect people with our heritage.
How have you seen the field of preservation change over the years?
There are patterns in the field of preservation where we see issues move to the forefront and becoming the focus, starting at the national level and working its way to the local level. 10 years ago, there was a great focus on green infrastructure (‘the greenest building is one that is already built’) and embodied energy in historic homes. More recently, the focus among the preservation community started shifting into resiliency concerns, educating the public about vulnerabilities and fostering creative solutions to address the threats of sea level rise on our historic landscapes. What I see emerging now is the idea that people ascribe all sorts of meaning to different non-traditional, historic resources. It may be oral traditions, cultural expressions, or contemporary African American resources. What is important to a community and worth protecting is not just the traditional understanding of an historic property, like a high-style Georgian building. One project that Lisa initiated while she was here was a local landmarking of a community center in a predominantly African American neighborhood. The building is not particularly old and not particularly significant from an architectural standpoint, but it has a significant meaning to the surrounding neighborhood as a cultural center by the people who have contributed to the building’s history. We are also challenged to identify ways that natural landscapes and cultural landscapes can work together, which is what we are trying to do with the Burtis House. There's a need for resiliency efforts to protect the shoreline but also the built environment. Historic Preservation is expanding to include natural landscapes, oral histories and traditions, and LGBTQ resources, for example. Up until now, there are a lot of resources that haven't gotten the attention that they deserve.
This broadening of the field of preservation has also brought more diversity to the field, which is a very good thing. Through the National Park Service, there is an interdisciplinary group working together that is advocating for the establishment of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area. One hub in this larger effort may ultimately be located at the City Dock and the Burtis House. I’m a part of the DIEJ subcommittee associated with this project. We’re working to make sure that we're capturing the voices of a very diverse, broad audience, as well as identifying those traditional and non-traditional resources to which different groups may ascribe significance and are worthy of protection.
Burtis House Feasibility Study
Historic Annapolis and the National Park Service, Chesapeake Office partnered to develop a feasibility study for the Captain William H. Burtis House, which was released in March 2021. Read the report here: https://bit.ly/33CnD8Y