Three young men rested on the shaded stairs to the Patterson Park’s Observatory to escape from the lingering summer heat wave last week. They had tried the doors to the historic landmark to go inside for some shade, but they were locked.
A whiteboard that can be seen through the glass doors near a spiral staircase confirms the closing. Written in faded blue handwriting is that the historic structure “will open to the public in May.” But May has come and gone.
The lingering question is why months later the observatory, visited by as many as 14,000 people in a given year when open, is still closed. And when it will really reopen.
The first question is fairly easy. There are safety concerns with the foundation of the structure that have prevented it from opening. Ed Wheeling, the deputy director of parks and facility maintenance at the Department of Recreation and Parks, said an inspection done in March found that the wood underneath the main boards of the decks were rotting.
The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the annual maintenance, during which the city usually inspects the observatory, replaces the decks and repaints the wood. The last time the city did an inspection was in 2019, causing the structure to be in a worse shape than previous years, said Jennifer Robinson, executive director of Friends of Patterson Park, a nonprofit that runs programming and day-to-day operation of the park. The recreation and parks department confirmed that they did not conduct any inspections or perform maintenance work on the observatory desk in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
The observatory was either closed or operated under a limited schedule from 2020 through 2021, and the top deck was available to the public last year on a regular schedule. But this year, it was just not safe, Robinson said.
After the inspection, Robinson and officials from the recreation and parks department met up to come with up with a plan, initially hoping to open only one month later than usual in May. The tourist attraction is usually open from April through October.
But because the structure is a city landmark, any changes in the exterior need the approval of the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation and the Maryland Historical Trust.
What’s triggering an extra level of review is the material the city and the nonprofit want to use to revamp the wooden decks. Since the deck of the observatory gets a lot of foot traffic, ultraviolet damage and moisture from the rain and snow, Friends of Patterson Park, the city’s recreation and parks department and the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation think a composite wood product will last longer and require less maintenance.
But when it comes to historic landmarks, state historic preservation offices usually follow federal guidelines known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Mainly, the alternative material should replicate the historic feature in a way that feels appropriate. But between historic preservation offices on a local and state level, it can create debate on whether the material should pass as historic or whether it should have a “tell” that indicates that it is more modern.
Generally, the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation said it tends to be more lenient with alternative materials if maintenance or financial costs pose issues. Modern lumber is more susceptible to water damage and rotting, mainly because trees are weaker, less dense and less resistant due to quicker growth for lumber. The wood used to build the observatory more than a century ago was largely superior in quality, and better hardwood is more expensive.
Nationwide, materials and labor supplies have gone up since the pandemic, and the composite material is more expensive than wood, Wheeling said. So it will cost more to repair the observatory than previous years, but Robinson said it’s going to be cheaper in the long run to maintain the landmark.
David Buck, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Planning, said the Maryland Historical Trust staff is reviewing the application and will be sending a response by the end of this week.
Once the Maryland Historical Trust makes a decision, Robinson said they hope to get started on the repairs right away. If the state approves the composite, she said the construction would take a few weeks. Then, they would keep the observatory open for as long as weather permits.