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November 22, 2014
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Milford at the tipping point


Small towns are fragile, none more so than Milford, a town of a half-mile square that sits on the edge of the largest and most economically active metropolitan region in America. The fact that it exists, mostly intact, is a testament to its citizens and some luck. But it is facing a major change that could end up being the tipping point of protecting this national treasure.

The proposed new courthouse annex will tear down the Queen Ann Kenworthey House in Milford’s National Historic District, and replace it with the new courthouse annex, a building fully one third larger than the historic Pike County courthouse. The new annex is equivalent to putting a big box store right on Broad Street. Their proposed plan will render Milford’s National Historic District powerless to stop any future teardowns of historic structures. All that would be needed is the claim that it “costs too much.”

The Pike County commissioners have released a cost analysis of an alternative of placing the new annex behind the existing courthouse, thus preserving the National Historic District. While I very much appreciate the consideration of this sensible alternative, I strongly take issue with the findings. The commissioners have dismissed the alternative location on the basis of a limited and somewhat questionable cost estimate. For example, Verizon proposes to “charge” more than $500,000 to move their fiber optic cable, a task this company does all over the nation as a cost of doing business. And, the analysis does not consider the “costs” to the economy and our incredibly special small town. There also seem to be a number of ways of reducing the cost of the annex, or of increasing off-setting revenue, such as selling the Miller Oil property and getting it back on the tax rolls and bringing in a new business.

Milford is a national treasure. Laid out by Circuit Court Judge John Biddis following William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia—America’s first city laid out on a grid with alleys and a center square fronted by the seat of government—Milford follows Philadelphia’s plan, even down to naming the main street Broad Street and the central cross street High Street. Milford has stood the test of time. Its village center’s charm and the protections provided by an historic district and architectural review board have made Milford a safe place for investment and also a very special place for its residents.

A century after Judge Biddis laid out Milford, hometown philanthropist James Wallace Pinchot brought his architect friends to Milford and established the character of Broad Street. Starting at the intersection of Harford Street, one finds the original post office designed by Calvert Vaux, Frederic Law Olmsted’s partner in designing New York City’s Central Park; Forest Hall designed by Richard Morris Hunt’s sons, who also designed the east facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Pinchot Homestead across the street, now the Milford Community House, remodeled by Hines and Lafarge, the designers of St. John the Divine in New York City; Normandy Cottage designed by McKim, Meade and White, the designers of Columbia University and the old Penn Station. Further down is the Presbyterian Church and the Pike County courthouse in Center Square, both designed by John Barrett, one of the architects of the industrial brick buildings in Patterson, NJ. These giants of 20th century architecture are represented in no other small town in America, let alone on its main street.

Being familiar with Grey Towers and its international significance to the forest conservation community, I know how special Milford is and how many visitors marvel at its charm and small town character. To them, Milford is more than just any town; it is really a near-sacred place in America. Yet most probably take for granted that it will always be this way.

Our county commissioners are only doing what they feel is in the best of interest of the citizens of the county. Costs do matter, and they are right to take them into consideration. I support that, but I believe we can design and build a much improved county court system without jeopardizing Milford. If we do not speak up and let them know our wishes, we will most likely lose something that is a national treasure, which would be a cost too high to pay.

[Edgar Brannon is the former director of Grey Towers National Historic Site and currently a senior fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. He lives in Milford.]