January 8, 2014 —
In the face of some well-organized and passionate opposition, Pike County Pennsylvania commissioners have a tough decision to make about where to build a much needed new courthouse annex in the heart of historic Milford. As the county’s population has grown (it increased 65% in the 1990s and another 24% between 2000 and 2010), the ability to conduct the county’s business undeniably requires more courtroom and office space. Where to site a new building (the plan is to connect it to the historic courthouse, built in 1874), and ultimately what kind of modern building the annex should be, has stirred controversy in the picturesque village.
One plan under consideration, the one county commissioners have indicated they prefer(though they have presented no formal application for its approval to the borough yet) would be to remove—either tearing down or relocating—the historic Queen Anne-style building known as the William B. Kenworthey House, constructed circa 1890s, at 410 Broad St. It sits on county-owned property directly next to the courthouse and is currently being used for court administration and judges’ chambers.
A second plan, which has been considered, would involve purchasing a building (now an attorneys’ office) at 104 W. High St. behind the courthouse to locate the new annex. According to an engineer’s analysis, this option would be significantly more expensive, in large part because the county would have to buy the land and building and reportedly have to foot the bill for moving the Verizon fiber-optic lines. Cost is the key reason the commissioners have given for not preferring this second option.
Opposition around the removal of the Kenworthey House centers around construction of a large, box-shaped, modern office building on a main street in Milford’s historic district where, out of 655 buildings, 400 have been deemed historically significant, with a handful listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We at The River Reporter find ourselves swayed by the arguments made by historic preservationists and others who are questioning the commissioners’ Plan A to remove the Kenworthey House to construct a modern, new annex on Broad Street.
Preserving the historic resources of a place is as much about preserving a cohesive community as it is about preserving buildings. In Milford’s case, its special character is inextricably tied to the charm of its historic district. But more than charm, historic preservation brings economic, cultural, social and even environmental benefits. Economically, it increases property values and attracts visitors; in a village where tourism is economically important, one need only look at the contribution that saving the old Hotel Fauchere has brought to reinvigorating a vibrant village life (not to slight the arts community or other efforts that have also contributed to the same). Culturally and socially, a community benefits when citizens take pride in telling their story, in which visual reminders of the past help connect people to the place they call their hometown. Environmentally, reusing and repurposing old buildings for modern uses and retrofitting them for energy efficiency rather than demolishing and sending the debris to a landfill is a greener and more sustainable practice.
We are reminded of a similar situation in Bucks County, PA in the late 1950s at a time when the historic preservation movement in the U.S. was only beginning to gain momentum. Those Bucks County commissioners, finding their 1878 courthouse in Doylestown no longer adequate for running modern government, decided to tear it down and replace it with a contemporary courthouse and office building totally out of character with the rest of the historic town. Among those old enough to remember, there are still those who lament the loss of that landmark. Its destruction forever changed not only the streetscape, but also diminished the borough’s original charm and character.
With regards to Pike County today, we find this paragraph of Sean Strub’s opposition letter, which so far has garnered 275 citizens’ signatures, most compelling: “If a chain store proposed demolition of the Kenworthey House to build a big box similar to the proposed courthouse annex, we are confident that virtually every member of the borough council and the architectural review board would be united in their opposition. We must hold ourselves—the collective government we share in a democracy—to the same, or an even higher, standard.”
While we appreciate the concerns of the Pike County Commissioners regarding cost, sometimes the price tag of doing what seems necessary and expedient is simply too high to pay. We suggest that the commissioners ask themselves what impact their present plan will have on the community and that they continue to explore other options to find an affordable way to meet the needs of the court system and county government. We believe the borough’s ARB should recommend against the removal of the Kenworthey House and the proposed design for a big box building at 104 Broad Street, and we urge the borough council to oppose it as well.