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 Convention Center 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, 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 Americans to call Lancaster home, even more consequential than 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. Ms. Smith, apart from being a pioneering black businesswoman, was also said to have been a ‘conductor’ on Harriet Tubman’s ‘Underground Railroad’ network, helping fugitive slaves escape the slave holding South.
The issue confronting the Lancaster Convention Center Authority was that the location of the proposed modern convention center was on top of the home and business of one of the most important Americans who ever lived.
Randolph Harris was the Executive Director of the Lancaster Historic Preservation Trust during these years. Harris, a Yale-educated historian, appreciated Stevens’ historical significance. Harris also knew 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 chairman 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 Historic Preservation 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.
Pickard announced the next month, 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 Convention Center 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 planned to raze the buildings entirely, until Harris objected, citing the easements.
The Convention Center Authority and Historic Preservation 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 – the whole of the three historical buildings across the street to a vacant parking lot behind the Swan Hotel.
“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, “(the LCCCA) 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.”
On a frigid but sunny day, Ron Harper, Jr., the citizen gadfly-journalist, was on hand with his video camera for the February, 1998, press conference on Penn Square to record Penn Square Partners’ announcement of its purchase of the Watt & Shand building. Nevin Cooley, president of the Partners, spoke to the media and local dignitaries, including Sen. Gib Armstrong and Mayor Charlie Smithgall.
“Penn Square Partners was formed for one and only one reason: to save this [the Watt & Shand] building behind me,” Cooley said.
By 2002, it was clear that the Partners were less concerned with “saving” the historical landmark building, than with gutting it entirely, albeit preserving certain exterior walls.
In order to qualify for Federal tax credits for the hotel portion of the project, Penn Square Partners needed the approval of the Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission, Bureau for Historic Preservation. They were required to submit the demolition and architectural plans for the development to the Historical Commission.
In a scathing letter dated April 23, 2003 to Thomas D. Smithgall, an executive with High Real Estate (and no relation to Mayor Smithgall), the Historical Commission sharply criticized the proposed project:
“Given the extent of development and demolition, it is our opinion that the project as proposed does not meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation & Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and therefore will adversely affect the Lancaster Historic District. In addition, due to the extent of demolition and development, it is our opinion that the National Park Service would not approve the project for federal tax credits.”
The letter from the Historical and Museum Commission detailed its objections:
“A 12-story tower (220 rooms) will be added on top of the Watt & Shand building. Its location on top of a historic building is grossly out of character out of scale and character with the historic building.
“The project will also result in substantial change in character to the Watt & Shand building because of the extensive changes needed to make the building a convention center hotel. 1) From what we can tell, there will be no sense that one is entering a former department store as a result of creating a 4-story [full height] atrium, a seamless connection to the convention center, the removal of all historic fabric [plaster beams and columns, pressed metal ceilings, relocation of elevators to relate to the new tower, loss of historic stairs, replacement of all original sash. 2) The removal of the original display windows and recess a new exterior wall on the principal elevation in order to create an arcade inconsistent with the building’s historic character.”
As had been done decades earlier with Lancaster Square – tearing down an entire block in the heart of downtown Lancaster – the sponsors of the convention center and hotel project went about doing much the same at Penn Square, apart from retaining the Watt and Shand building’s facade.
Another landmark building designed by C. Emlen Urban was on a to-be-demolished list, as was the former home of Lancaster’s greatest citizen, Thaddeus Stevens.