By Christiaan A. Hart-Nibbrig
The $15 million grant from the Commonwealth, and the revenue from the hotel room tax, provided the LCCCA with millions of dollars to defend the project in court, and to acquire property for the proposed development.
After buying the Oblender furniture store and properties at 45-49 S. Queen Street and 21 and 23 E. Vine Street for about $1.3 million, the Authority found itself presented with another public relations predicament.
The poorly maintained, but structurally sound, buildings at Vine and Queen Streets were not every day buildings. They happened to be the former home and business of one of the greatest Americans in the country’s history—Thaddeus Stevens.
Stevens, a severe-looking, bald (due to disease), club-footed, republican Congressman during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, was the moving force behind of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. Those amendments—emancipating African-Americans, giving African-Americans citizenship, and providing African-Americans with the right to vote—are as historically consequential as any in the nation’s history.
Thaddeus Stevens is also credited with establishing widespread free public education in Pennsylvania. For decades, he ran a successful law practice in Lancaster from the Queen and Vine Street location. Arguably, Stevens is the most impactful American to call Lancaster home, far more consequential than the feckless James Buchanan, the country’s 15th President, whose former residence (Wheatland) just west of the city has been lovingly restored.
Another of the buildings acquired by the authority belonged to Stevens’ longtime confidante, the mixed-race Lydia Hamilton Smith who, apart from being a pioneering black businesswoman, was also said by historians to have been a ‘conductor’ on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad network, helping fugitive slaves escape the slave holding South.
The issue confronting the convention center authority was that the location, where the great American Stevens made his home and business, was directly in the way of where they wanted to build their convention center.
Randolph Harris was the Executive Director of the Historic Preservation Trust during these years. Harris, a conscientious historian, was acutely aware of Stevens’ historical significance. Harris was also cognizant that the Trust owned easements on those properties, requiring the Trust’s approval for any alteration done to the buildings. In 1983, the easements had been signed over to the Trust by the last owners of the buildings.
In December, 1999, soon after the LCCCA board was formed, Harris wrote a letter to Pickard advising him of this fact. Pickard did not respond, and by June, 2000, all of the properties were purchased by the Authority.
In early January, 2001, the Trust announced a proposal to create a ‘Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith National Historic Landmark’ on the properties. The Trust recommended that the LCCCA restore all of the buildings and create a museum around the Stevens/Hamilton theme.
In February, 2001, Pickard announced the authority would preserve the building facades. Those facades, at the very least, will have to be incorporated into the architecture of the convention center building,” he was quoted in the Lancaster Newspapers. “Overall, the aesthetics will fit in. Even though it’s going to be a new building, we want it to reflect the heritage of Lancaster.”
Pickard clearly bristled at having to address the Stevens property issue. He stated the authority was unaware of the easements when it purchased the buildings in March, 2000. Pickard blamed the company overseeing the sale, Commonwealth National Title Insurance Co., for not making the authority aware of the easements. The authority originally planned to raze the buildings, until Harris objected, citing the easements.
The authority and Trust explored the possibility of integrating the historic buildings into the convention center design. But center planners objected, concerned that it would reduce the size, and jeopardize the viability of the project.
In April 2001, after negotiating with the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster (RACL), the Convention Center Authority board voted unanimously to invoke eminent domain and relocate, as in physically transport, three of the historical buildings across the street to a vacant parking lot behind the Swan Hotel. Most historians, including Harris and Robert C. Wilburn, president and chief executive officer of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum, thought the idea was a bad one.
“For one public body to be making a decision with another public body in a vacuum, without consulting with people who know about historic preservation law, is not wise,” Harris fumed after the meeting to move the buildings.
“This was scripted, orchestrated, ad infinitum,” Harris continued, “(Authority members) wanted to make the perception we were all engaged in this discussion. But it’s a smokescreen. It’s bogus.”
Even staunch project proponent State Sen. Gibson Armstrong objected to moving the buildings. Armstrong, whose wife sat on the board of directors of the Historic Preservation Trust, publicly questioned moving the buildings. “We don’t need any more lawsuits and we don’t need any more problems,” he said to the New Era.
The rhetoric and public relations campaigning on both sides of the historical building issue got heated.
In May, 2001, Pickard sharply criticized a mayor from South Carolina who publicly spoke about preserving the buildings where they were. Pickard blamed the Trust for “lobbying” for its side.
The issue was effectively resolved on May 22, 2001, when the RACL board voted unanimously to nullify the Stevens/Smith easements held by the Trust. The Intelligencer Journal reported “Nullifying the easements on the historic properties is valid, as long as the convention center authority buys the Swan Hotel, said Thomas Weber, chairman of the redevelopment authority.“
The Authority now could do what it pleased with the properties, and it did.