Preservation efforts continue in Bethany

Efforts to preserve historical homes in Bethany Beach continue, but at a slow pace, as preservationists debate how best to proceed with grass-roots endeavors and more official efforts from the town.
Members of the Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee (CHAC) met Nov. 14 to discuss their next steps on the issue, including an update from committee member Dan Costello, who has spearheaded the effort.

Costello said a letter directed at the owners of historical properties had been drafted but not yet sent out — a delay at least partially due to waiting to hear the fate of federal guidelines for tax incentives to encourage façade preservation. (He noted no significant changes in federal legislation on the subject had been made.)

The letter was originally designed to gather support from owners of the town’s older homes toward a joint effort at the federal tax incentives and/or some sort of town program, as Vice Mayor and CHAC Chairwoman Carol Olmstead pointed out.

But Costello said he wasn’t sure the letter alone was enough, and moreover, he needed more guidance on the project than a simple list of 10 or 12 houses that were known to be among the oldest homes in the town. Instead, he wanted a more extensive survey done — or rather completed.

It seems the town has had a partial survey of its architectural history — through a student intern who worked with the town several years ago and apparently performed some level of an architectural survey while doing so. The town received a copy.

Costello said he felt a more professional hand was needed in determining exactly which houses should be on a list targeted for preservation, moving beyond a simple 50-year-old standard and into the characteristics of worthiness that are used by historical registers. He himself professed just enough knowledge “to be dangerous.”

So he advocated the town officially contract with an architectural professional to “complete” the student survey and formalize a list of those homes that should be preserved. He said the town had agreed to complete such a survey in the development of its previous comprehensive development plan and he felt they should do so.

Costello also said he was seeking to work with the Planning Commission and/or its new ad hoc committee to look into ordinances that could push the preservation of the town’s older homes.

Other committee members agreed with the need but were strongly in favor of continuing the letter-based effort prior to any official support from the town, let alone the completion of the survey.

Committee member Jeri Walsh said she felt doing otherwise was putting the proverbial cart before the horse — asking the town council to support an effort to preserve homes without a clear indication of support for the idea from those who own the homes in question.

Olmstead said she would take the survey idea to the council but couldn’t make any guarantees of support for the idea, let alone a quick timetable to carry it out — of the essence, it was pointed out, when the town’s number of truly historic homes is dwindling to less than a dozen.

Costello was in agreement on time being of the essence. He said the recent razing of the house known as Drexler West had been particularly demoralizing for him, since it “went down without a whimper.”

Committee members were unanimous in saying they didn’t want that to happen again.

“It can only happen five or six more times,” Costello pointed out.

Though he persisted in his emphasis on the need for a survey of historical homes in the town, Costello agreed to pursue the letter concept again, hoping to engage the home owners in the committee’s efforts to preserve them and their like.

One person he did not entirely sway was fellow committee member Carolyn Hughes, who owns one of the homes in question. While she favored preservation, she said she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her what to do with her house, should more forceful methods than tax incentive come into play.

Costello emphasized that the façade preservation was a far less drastic idea than might be imagined, allowing owners to add on to their home or renovate interiors, etc., but simply pay them (with tax incentives) to preserve an existing façade.

Committee members were more solidly behind a lower-key effort to denote the town’s architectural heritage — through placards and markers. Following up on an old idea to mark the historical homes with yard markers, they agreed to make a list of the homes that might be appropriate for such a marker.

Taking the idea a step further, they agreed to add to that list some non-residential locations of historical significance in the town and to pursue historical placards for those locations as well. Even locations that have long since been put to other uses may be the eventual recipients of the placards under the plan, possibly with historical photographs included to depict what was once there.

Committee members also continue their efforts to preserve town memorabilia, with the acceptance of the loan a bowling pin from the town’s original bowling alley. The pin was donated by Planning Commission member Steve Wode, whose wife Jean Wode (a committee member) noted he had been a pin-setter for the alley as a boy. The pin itself was found in the debris of the legendary 1962 storm, she said.

The pin and a trunk from Drexler West are both likely candidates to go on display at the town’s renovated museum in the near future. The museum staff is very interested in obtaining additional artifacts, whether on loan or given as a gift to the museum.

Along with their cultural event series, committee members are shifting focus to events that could be held at the museum, including the concept of an art show. They agreed that such a show could be held in conjunction with the cultural events, running from that Wednesday event time through the following weekend and maximizing turnout for the artists and museum.

The events already planned for the coming winter include a Jan. 25 evening of New Orleans jazz with Don Sharp, a Feb. 22 evening with state archivist Russ McCabe, a March 22 history presentation on Bethany Beach and Ocean View from Gordon Wood and an April 26 appearance by a representative of the Nanticoke Indian tribe.

Committee members also continue to work on their oral history project, continuing to add to a list of would-be subjects for interviews about their memories of Bethany Beach.

They agreed that a major hurdle in the project has been getting interviewers comfortable with the recording technology they wanted to use and proposed hiring a professional to not only edit the completed interviews for presentation but to do the actual recording, while committee members would do the interviewing.

Sadly, they noted the loss of one potential interview subject — longtime Bethany Beach resident and former news writer Mary Murphy, who died Nov. 11. In addition to the loss itself, it highlighted the need to get moving on the project, before more such voices are lost.

Finally, Hughes read for committee members a letter she had drafted with the intention of encouraging both stories and artifacts from the town’s residents. Both are highly sought after by the committee, and members agreed that the letter was a great way to bring additional help for the effort from the community as a whole.