CAMBRIDGE — A new era has begun for the Hearn Building in downtown Cambridge. Though it doesn’t look like much has changed from a vantage point on the sidewalk of Race Street, the historic Herbert Hearn Hardware building at 509-511 Race is on its way to an entire new life; and as it rises it will bring the entire block with it.
The United Stores Company acquired a parcel of land from Martin Slacum in April of 1914 with the intent of erecting a three-story commercial building adjacent to two existing three-story commercial buildings recently constructed next to the Grace M.E. Church on the corner of Race and Muir streets. The finished building at 509-511 Race became the Herbert Hearn Hardware company, a massive business that dominated the center of the block as well as society in Cambridge for decades.
The Economic environment of Cambridge changed drastically upon the closing of the Phillips Packing Company in the 1960s, and Hearn Hardware fell on hard times, along with the rest of the town. In 1975 the building changed hands and was ultimately abandoned by its owners when a plan to convert the building to a “mall” of shopping opportunities failed to materialize. The building went into a period of neglect, during which time a leak in the roof escalated into a collapse of a significant portion of the roof and rapid deterioration of the internal structure of the building.
In October of 2015, the Hearn Building suffered a near-fatal catastrophe when a portion of the south wall collapsed, damaging the Tolley Theater building next door. Demolition seemed to be the logical next step, except for the arrival of Stanley Keyser of Baltimore. Mr. Keyser relocated to Cambridge because of the potential he recognized in the historic downtown buildings, especially the layout of the 500 block of Race Street.
One thing led to another an interest in the renovation of the building prompted the acquisition of historic preservation grants that paid for the stabilization of the building through the construction of steel braces. The story is long and torturous, but in the winter of 2016 the Dorchester County Council sold the Hearn Building, following foreclosure, to Historic Cambridge Development, LLC.
The question has come up repeatedly, since the collapse of the wall: Why not just tear the building down? The principal player of the development group has even been referred to as “Krazy Keyser” by more than a few locals, but Stanley Keyser is on a mission of preservation, and he wants the satisfaction of bringing Race Street back to life.
We recently had the opportunity to visit the Hearn Building, and join Mr. Keyser and a member of the development team, Elizabeth Beckley of Cambridge Preservation Works, LLC, on the site for a tour and a talking-to about the whys and wherefores of a project such as this.
Standing on the basement floor of the Hearn Building, where until three weeks ago we would have been within ten or twelve feet of rubble sitting in five feet of water, we asked Stanley about his mission and intentions for the Hearn Building.
His answer was simple. “To bring it back in kind,” said Mr. Keyser. “Like it was when it was first built. Because that’s maintaining the fabric of not only the building itself, the block it sits in, the street it sits on, the city it exists in, the county it serves, and the country. Basically, we are restoring heritage for future generations.”
But why do it at all? Why not just tear it down?
“For me, this is a labor of love,” he said. “What I’m doing, what attracts me …I heard a song long ago by Joni Mitchell (Big Yellow Taxi). She was saying, tear it down, tear down the fabric of your community, and what do you have left? You have the opportunity to build a parking lot. Who wants another parking lot? To put it another way, who wants a missing tooth in the mouth of Main Street, Cambridge USA?
“So we are bringing it back to the building it was—not the same use, not the same customers or clients, it’s a re-adaptive use. This cannot be a hardware store any more, it’s not economically feasible. But, to live, work, and eat here is very economically viable, and the way people want to live today. This is the American heritage we’re working on right now. Once this goes, it’s gone.”
But wouldn’t it be cheaper to just tear it down and replace it with a modern building?
“It’s not a matter of cheaper,” said Elizabeth Beckley, the project’s Preservation Consultant. “The building is worth restoring because we have the advantage of historic tax credits. And because we have the ability to use historic tax credits for a building such as this, that makes the project doable.
“These types of (historic) buildings are one of the best economic development tools that towns and cities have for retaining the character of their community—using and retaining your built environment, which is always good practice. It’s environmentally sound, it’s economically sound. People come to the Eastern Shore primarily for tourism. People come here to see and experience the character and nature of where they are. If they wanted to see box stores they could go anywhere in the country. But if they want to see the heart and soul of a place, they want to go look at its historic downtown. That’s the reason why we have historic districts and we have National Register districts, and by virtue of those districts this building is a contributing structure. That makes this building eligible for historic tax credits. If this building was sitting outside of town and it was not in a district, and if it was not eligible for an individual listing in the National Register, we would not be eligible for the tax credits and this building would never be restored.”
It’s easy to see the passion in Keyser’s group when they get their teeth sunk into a project like the Hearn building.
“When we restore this building, we will be helping to put a sense of place and pride back into the community. To help create a viable, interesting place to live that has character and provides people with a good quality of life,” said Ms. Beckley. “And it puts money back into the economic base of the town. Also, restoration projects like this are 70 percent labor and about 30 percent material. So the money that is spent on restoring this building goes right back into the local economy—to our contractors, our suppliers and our professional team. Those people take that money and they spend it locally. Because this job is mostly labor and not materials, that money gets spent on local businesses.”
Being a small, community-oriented historic development company, according to Ms. Beckley, Historic Cambridge Development, LLC doesn’t bring a crew into town to do all their construction work, much like what she calls the “Wall Street builders.” “They come in,” she tells us, “they bring their crews in from out of state, they buy their materials from other places in the country. They do the job, and then they leave.”
One-off, rehabilitation projects can’t be done by “big box” developers anyhow, says Ms. Beckley. “They wouldn’t know how to leverage the tax credits to facilitate a project like this. You can’t treat this building like it’s new construction. You have to retain the historic fabric and integrity of the building in order to attain the tax credits. We have to jump the hurdles all along with the State and the National Park Service.”
“They don’t make any more of these,” adds Ms. Beckley. “So these (historic buildings) are the only ones we have. One of the most interesting things that’s happened for us in our journey with this building, are all of the people who have memories and a feeling of ownership of the Hearn building. There are generations of people who worked here, and family members who worked here. When you read through the historic obituaries in the Cambridge newspapers, one of the first things you’ll read is, ‘He worked at Herbert Hearn Hardware Company for 40 years.’
“They worked at the Herbert Hearn Hardware Company, and their children remember coming here and seeing their parents at work, or coming here to work themselves; and they remember the pneumatic tubes that carried the cash for purchases upstairs. You know, when you’re talking about the character of a community, it’s important for an older generation to be able to bring the younger generation out into the community and to walk them around and be able to say, ‘This is where I went to school, and this is where I worked, and here’s what happened when I worked here, and this is what it was like. And our neighbors worked here, and this is our community—this is where we come from.’”
“That’s one of the definitions of community,” says Mr. Keyser. “One generation educates the next generation. And you were asking if it’s economically feasible—on the surface, no, it’s not. It costs more to do a rehabilitation or restoration of an historic building, and one of the reasons why is that the Maryland Historical Trust, the local historic preservation commission, and the National Park Service hold our feet to the fire insisting that we preserve as much as we can, and what we can’t preserve we replace in kind. And with those rules being so strict, we end up with a good product. A product that costs more, but the tax credits help alleviate that burden.”
“This is old school,” adds Ms. Beckley. “It’s interesting. People look at buildings like this, and they think it can’t be fixed. And yes, they are very complicated projects, but you have to understand what makes this building valuable and how you leverage the value in this building to help it pay for itself.
“This building was all built by hand,” she added. “There were no power tools used in the construction of this building. All the windows in this building are trimmed in cyprus, and the old glass, all the muntins are still in place. People operated under a different principal back then. They wanted the building to reflect their personal ethics; for how they felt they should interact with the community, and what they were bringing the community when they created this business.
“The concern and care that the businessmen put into the construction of this building is reflected in the kind of business that they ran. Herbert Hearn and his partners built this building with the same integrity that they intended to run their business. This is an American-made building—this is the character and fabric of Cambridge.”
Historic Cambridge Development, LLC hasn’t shown us the plans for the building yet, they’re still working on establishing the list of materials and techniques they’ll need to use to ensure an accurate reconstruction. But their intention is to use the first floor, street level, for retail of some sort—coffee shop, stores, professional offices possibly—with the second and third floor as residential. A rumored use as an artists’ colony and possible “Section 8 housing” apartments in the past created a storm of protests, and Ms. Beckley ensures us there is no plan for subsidized housing on the site.
Standing at “ground zero” of the Hearn building, talking to Keyser and Beckley and picturing the vision they have, the mood becomes infectious. The worst part of the rehabilitation has taken place, and though the remainder of the roof needs to be carefully removed, the façade hides only a clean, empty shell, ready for the future. It’s going to happen. Keyser and Beckley are committed to carefully putting the Herbert Hearn Hardware building back together, to bring it back to life; and to bring the 500 block of Race Street right back with it.
They are committed, even though wags in town have snickered that Stanley Keyser “ought to be committed.” He laughs along with them, admitting that maybe this sort of project may look a little crazy. But it’s crazy in a good way.
“There’s no difference in restoring this building or restoring a historic skipjack,” said Elizabeth Beckley, as we made our way out of the “new” Hearn building to let the construction crew get on with their jobs. “People restore a skipjack and we know right away what that means. This was the old way of oystering or clamming, and we restore the old boats so that people can appreciate the heritage of Maryland and the heritage of the Chesapeake Bay, and the history of Dorchester County being predominantly a watermen’s community. When you look at that skipjack you know where you are. And you know where you come from. And this building is no different. It’s exactly the same.”
Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at email@example.com.