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Fate of Chestertown Armory threatened by mold

CHESTERTOWN — Now proven to be an historically significant building, the fate of the SFC John H Newnam Armory in Chestertown still remains undecided. Progress has a way of razing the past to make room for opportunity in the future, and it would seem the Armory may be in the reaper’s sights for the wrecking ball — its fate tied to environmental reports linking this historical gem to insidious black mold.

The Aug. 9, 2022, survey of the building’s interior by Sussex Environmental of Georgetown, DE identified the presence of asbestos, lead paint and excessive mold due to the extensive standing moisture and humidity. Further, the report stated, mold has infiltrated the building structure to the extent that complete remediation is questionable.

A second environmental study performed by MMTS Environmental of Elkton in November 2022, which focused on the type of mold that existed throughout the building structure and identified the mold as being toxic. Unfortunately, the second study further cited the ability to preserve the Armory was not feasible due to the possibility of not being able to completely remediate the toxic mold.

A tour on Dec. 19, 2022, of the Armory to witness the current condition firsthand was conducted with the Washington College Director of Facilities Stan Yeakel, Washington College’s Vice President for Marketing and Communications Brian Speer and Thomas Kocubinski, RA, historic architect and planner.

The purpose of the visit was to verify not only the “as-is” state, but also to document visible defects, construction methods and materials and any measures undertaken to prevent future decline or damage to the building. The question was posed to the representatives from Washington College about whether there was power to the building at all, and if not, when it was terminated. There was no power in the building, and the termination date was not known.

Upon first impressions, the Armory had the patina and smell of a building nearly 100 years old. While many of the features of the building were reminiscent of 1930’s art deco construction, details such as broad millwork around the doors and windows (and even inside of the closets) were offset by modern (circa 1990) HVAC, electrical and fire detection/prevention equipment. The main drill hall and gymnasium, with its parquet insignia of the 115th Infantry Unit still intact, was strewn with Washington College storage items. Large holes were visible in a number of places in the roof of the main structure, some showing daylight on the other side. There was notable deterioration in the floor directly under one such gap in the roof, and it was clear that the damage had happened over an extended period of time.

Throughout the tour, Kocubinski recorded multiple moisture readings to compare with those cited in the environmental reports. He also took careful notes and photographic evidence of construction materials used and their current condition. Throughout the interior, deteriorated plaster and paint were observed due to elevated moisture levels from lack of maintenance and absence of operating the modern HVAC system. He noted that moisture also fostered mold growth. A large roof opening combined with open windows and broken glass further exacerbates deterioration due to moisture intrusion. Kocubinski said, “Moisture readings at plastered walls were taken, and I was encouraged to find them notably less than reported in the mold report (27 versus 57 percent). Despite neglect, the good news is that deterioration and damage involve mostly building finishes that can be readily addressed”.

Kocubinski also said he was surprised to read in the application that the College cannot attract investors due to hazmat issues, “During the walk through, I saw challenges, but they were all familiar — nothing that would make me turn and run knowing the capabilities of the construction industry to rehab historic structures safely and effectively for continued use.”

From an historical architecture standpoint, Kocubinski observed that the Armory was designed by William Gordon Beecher, a prominent Baltimore architect, “Mr. Beecher designed the Emerson Hotel and the Catonsville Presbyterian Church along with many significant residences in Baltimore and in the Olmsted planned Roland Park. He also designed the studio and residence for renown sculptor Hans Schuler, whose monuments and sculptures grace Baltimore and Washington. The Armory’s significance as an architectural resource is further elevated by the hand of Mr. Beecher.”

As the tour continued, the group encountered various levels of deterioration and decay including actively growing mold colonies in several areas. Proceeding to the basement level of the structure, the group entered the original mechanical room, housing many of the HVAC, hot water and power subsystems. Closer inspection revealed the main power to the building was still intact and functioning. A quick flip of a nearby wall switch illuminated nearly the entire structure of the lower level. A fact in stark contrast to the College’s original belief that the power was non-functional and had been off for an indeterminate amount of time. Previous anecdotal accounts related that the present condition of the building was due in part to the lack of power in the building that would have allowed the HVAC and air circulation systems to have done their job, which in turn would have prevented the current situation, or at very least greatly reduced its effect on the building.

Following the conclusion of the building tour, Kocubinski shared additional insight into the construction materials he had witnessed inside the Armory. He said in context, “In the 1930s, it was common to use clay hollow block in the construction of exterior walls. The high kiln temperature used in production rendered the surfaces glazed, hard and impervious. Since the Armory was built in this period, I was curious to know if clay block was used. If so, the interior portion could not be infused with mold. Based on probing, it appears that clay block exists and not masonry, a potentially positive and significant finding. If confirmed, revisiting the extent and costs for remediation and likelihood of mold return would be warranted.”

He proceeded to show pictures detailing the clay block he had observed on the interior of the Armory. It has been his experience that in circumstance such as this, the use of pressurized, recycled dry ice pellets is a 99.9% effective, safe and sustainable method to kill and clean mold, even in masonry, due to its -110 degree temperature. Any remaining lead paint could be encapsulated with new paint or removed, both common practices. Kocubinski also noted that the safe removal of vinyl asbestos floor tiles has become routine. Kocubinski also noted that the piping insulation, a frequent location for asbestos material, appeared to be fiberglass and free of asbestos.

Asked directly about the current state of the building, Kocubinski stated, “The current state of neglect resulting in unnecessary and rapid deterioration was my most concerning observation. If there is to be sincere consideration for the building’s reuse, it is imperative to implement a building stabilization program post haste. Priorities are securing the building’s exterior envelope to prevent water intrusion and stabilizing the interior by providing dehumidification, air movement and removal of ceiling tiles, carpet and stored items. To address resiliency, reactivate the sump pumps, provide flood protectives at grade level doors and route roof runoff far from the perimeter.”

Neither Yeakel or Speer could answer as to why remediation steps had not been taken or even preservation measures, as they are both fairly new to the college and did not have that historical information.