A major decision regarding the fate of the Ascension House at 202 S. Summit Ave. will come on Dec. 1 when the Planning Commission discusses its decision on the house's historical standing.
While Historic District Commission's chairman Clark Day called his commission's October recommendation on the case an "open-and-shut designation," members of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension believe the new committee's criteria for historical significance is "broad".
"It suggested a process which could hardly fail to produce a positive finding," said parishioner Ron Huber. "I paraphrase: 'Is the house old?' Check; 'Is the house or remaining parts of the house of a type or form associated with the era in which it was built?' Check; 'Was the house built or owned by someone of some renown in the community?' Check."
The church, which owns the house and runs many of their outreach programs on the premises, submitted a demolition permit for the Ascension House in July. The 500-member congregation say they need to gain 150 new parking spaces for their services, 60 of which they estimate could be created on the Ascension House property.
The application, by law, triggered an automatic review by the HDC to determined whether the house had "historical, cultural, architectural and/or design significance." After two tours of the house in July, the commission recommended that the house, built by former city councilman Frank Severence in 1903, be historically designated and called a public hearing instead of granting the permit.
Despite the recommendation from the HDC, which is a new governing body sworn in on Sept. 28, church members continue to question the true historical value of the site.
"It's not a very useful example of Victorian period architecture," said Huber, adding that he has a "personal affection" for the Ascension House. "Its ties (and those of Mr. Severence) to the history of Gaithersburg are surely not the stuff to stir or sustain public interest."
Huber also suggested that the HDC would have struggled to deem the property historically significant if it were held to a more strict rubric.
"If the HDC had to make a case before the Mayor and Council (or a private or public foundation) for funds to buy and maintain the property, including making a case for attracting visitors to the property, I know the questions would go into great detail," he said, "And I suspect the finding would be different."
Day dispelled Huber's claims, pointing out that their recommendation was unanimously seconded by the city's Historical Preservation Advisory Committee.(HPAC)
"The history speaks for itself," Day said, "It's one of the most qualified properties for historic designation in this community."
The Mayor and Council will consider the recommendations by the Planning Commission and Historic District Commission on Dec. 20, then render a final decision.
In response to accusations that the HDC, a commission barely a month old when the Ascension decision was made, is trying to make a name for themselves, Day replied, "It's not like we're trying to put ourselves on the map [with our recommendation.] In no way are we trying to make headlines."
Ascension's Reverend Randy Lord-Wilkinson said the church's leaders were "not surprised" that the HDC wanted to designate the house none of the commission's actions were "unexpected."
"It's not like the [Ascension House] is a 50-year-old International House of Pancakes," Lord-Wilkinson said. "Their recommendation seems normal to me."
While the reverend added that his work with the commission has been "great" and that the Ascension House has seen "many life-changing experiences" within its walls, he believes the church has no other solutions for their parking problems aside from razing the home.
"We really don't have many choices," Lord-Wilkinson said.
The HDC, however, isn't so sure about Ascension's limited options. According to Day, the church had the "entire staff" of the city's government working on alternatives to demolishing Ascension House. The brainstorming session resulted in 15 ideas, but the church rejected every single one.
"The city bent over backwards to come up with options and the church simply said, 'No, we can't do it.'" Day said. "Just because you asked for something, doesn't mean you will get it."
Day added that Ascension should look no further than the Grace United Methodist Church experience with the Susannah House for proof that keeping a historical site yields its own benefits. That church wanted to demolish the building at 3 Walker Ave. to create 18 parking spaces, but were forced to fix the house after a historic designation review.
"We said: 'Don't just tear it down, fix it,' and they are so damn happy they did," said Day.
The church turned the property into viable office space and Day estimates they have won five historic preservation awards for the conversion.
"They're thrilled to still have the space," he said.
While Day said he would "love" to help the church solve their parking problem, but brushed aside their "dramatic" claims that the 128-year-old church would dissolve unless they tear down the Ascension House.
Quoting Wall Street investor Peter Lynch's unique definition of suicide, Day concluded: "Demolishing that historic house would be a permanent act that's not even a solution to a temporary problem."
Clarification: This article was changed on Nov. 26 to clarify the decision making process of the HDC, Planning Commission and Mayor and Council.