By Nicholas Redding, President & CEO
On a rainy evening in 2018, a police cruiser lost control and slammed into a small, 1,000-square-foot home at 417 North Jonathan Street in Hagerstown, a small city in rural Washington County, Maryland.
The resulting damage was enough to condemn the building. The planned demolition didn’t raise any eyebrows – many buildings in the historic African American neighborhood had recently met the same fate. It was just another standard demolition.
But Jonathan Street was, and remains, the nucleus of the African American community of Hagerstown, with a history stretching back to the 1820s. Decades of disinvestment have created numerous hurdles for the residents, and since the 2010s, the neighborhood has experienced a spate of demolitions of its rich historic fabric.
In 2019, those demolitions caught the eyes of local advocates Reggie Turner and Tereance Moore – who in turn reached out to Preservation Maryland, the statewide historic preservation nonprofit, about intervening.
This was not a chance intervention, though. It was the direct result of a very surprising discovery at 417 North Jonathan Street.
Is this residential home made out of … logs?
As the contractors hired to demolish 417 North Jonathan Street began their work – peeling back modern siding – they uncovered a log building.
Rather than move forward with their destructive work, they stopped to make sure they should still proceed with flattening the structure. Outside opinions confirmed that the contractors were right: based on the building’s materials, this was a unique site worth saving.
Thanks to local advocates, Preservation Maryland was brought in – and made its first direct acquisition of a threatened structure in nearly 45 years.
Once the historical value of the location had been established, the plan was straightforward: save the building and keep it residential. The goal was also to utilize the structure for owner-occupied affordable housing, which remains in short supply in the community. It would be a catalytic preservation endeavor.
Exactly how old is this cabin?
Under a partnership with the Maryland State Highway Administration, prior to the start of the rehabilitation project for the cabin, a full-scale excavation of the site was launched.
In addition to the subterranean investigation, the archaeologists also brought in the Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory from Baltimore, Maryland to determine the age of the building itself. Using a process known as dendrochronology, the scientists were able to determine the precise date of the felling of the logs.
The findings were stunning.
Based on earlier architectural investigations and deed research, it was already obvious that the building was moved to the current location sometime in the 1830s. The dendrochronology, however, found that the trees, which then became the building’s logs, were cut in the winter of 1739. For some context, that means that this building was initially constructed a full 37 years before America declared its independence from Great Britain.
In fact, in 1739, only a handful of cabins were known to be standing in what has become Hagerstown – and they were the two cabins owned by the town’s namesake Jonathan Hager. In history and preservation, it’s dangerous speak in absolutes – but it’s highly likely that this cabin was one of Hager’s originals – and was moved to this site by his descendants almost 100 years after it was first erected in the 1730s. It also means this structure is over 280 years old.
Applying 21st century historic preservation
What began as an endeavor to save a threatened building and give a neighborhood a sense of the power of preservation expanded to an effort to save one of the state’s oldest extant buildings. At Preservation Maryland, we see this confluence of opportunities as twenty-first century historic preservation at its very best.
At 417 North Jonathan, we’ve been provided with an opportunity to save a significant piece of history and to make a direct and lasting investment in a community for the benefit of current and future residents. Nothing is being frozen in time or captured in amber – this building will remain a living, breathing home with a purpose and a job and hopefully stand for another 280 years – well into the 24th century.
About the author
Nicholas Redding has served as the President & CEO of Preservation Maryland since 2014. Prior to his arrival at Preservation Maryland, he served in leadership positions at several heritage and preservation organizations including Deputy Director for Advocacy at the American Battlefield Trust in Washington, DC. Prior to the Trust, he served as a Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. He is a graduate of West Virginia’s Shepherd University and lives outside of Frederick, Maryland with his wife, daughter, and two beagles.