Opinion: Should the Wells Sherman House move to the Standing Rock Garden?

Ann Ward and Roger Thurman

Beginning in March 2012 and facing a July deadline, a hastily formed group of preservationists began planning to save the Kent Wells Sherman House. Because the preferred Esplanade location was not possible, at least 17 other sites were thoroughly investigated. All were denied, until a vacant lot at 247 N. Water St. became the last hope. Years ago the lot hosted a pre-Civil War house. The present owner welcomed the project and agreed to sell.

The 1858 Kent Wells Sherman House is the last full two-story Greek Revival structure in Kent. It was built on family land for Zenas Kent’s daughter, Katherine Kent Wells.

The North Water Street neighborhood already has several Civil War-era buildings including Greek Revival homes; the historical context is virtually perfect. This serene neo-classical architecture, emanating from New England, directly references the dawn of our democracy as the former colonies sought to break with Georgian architecture, which represented the despised British monarchy.

Now aware of this provenance, Kent State graciously offered to help move the house and sell it to the KWSH Inc. nonprofit for $1 if restored for partial public usage and enjoyment. This fit with KWSH’s charitable and educational goals of historic preservation and sustainability to enhance neighborhoods.

The comprehensive approval process went smoothly until July 17, when the Kent Planning Commission, distracted by testimony from Standing Rock Cultural Arts supporters, denied the move to 247 N. Water St. based on the use of the property rather than the approved site plan.

Standing Rock has no legal standing in the matter. In fact, for more than 20 years this organization has rented its primary gallery site monthly; its use of the adjacent vacant lot is not even secured by a simple first right of refusal.

This is a small building (24 by 30 ft.) taking only 12 percent of the 6,000 square foot lot. There will be 12.5 feet of space from the lines of the adjacent lots. Allowing for necessary rear access and front setback, about half of the lot’s back depth will remain green space.

KWSH has offered Standing Rock gallery for meeting space and use of the backyard and has placed the house back from the sidewalk to not block the mural on the building to the south. These sincere gestures were communicated as soon as 247 N. Water St. became the sole available, affordable destination for the house. Standing Rock has refused to assign any value to these reasonable accommodations and will not negotiate.

Ann Ward and Roger Thurman are chair and vice chair of Kent Wells Sherman House Inc., respectively.

Jeff Ingram

Standing Rock Cultural Arts prefers a win-win solution to the dilemma about the historic Kent Wells Sherman House’s relocation to 247 N. Water St. We believe both the green space and the historic house should be preserved.

If this were an empty lot, it might make sense to relocate the house here. However, it is far from empty.

For almost 20 years, the site — maintained by SRCA with the owner’s permission at no expense to the owner or city — has been used for community activities by SRCA, whose mission is “to build community through the arts.” It is valuable to us, and we are in a position to purchase it if the current purchase agreement does not proceed. There are three key reasons why the green space should be preserved.

First, it is not vacant. Many activities have taken place here throughout the years that serve the best interests of the city and its citizens. These include New World Children’s Theatre, dance, poetry readings, public art, organic gardens and viewing of Edwin George’s Cherokee mural on the wall of the Scribbles Coffee Co. building. Land improvements include additions of solar panels to supplement gallery electricity, a rain garden to prevent soil erosion and native species of plants to encourage natural habitats.

Secondly, there is overwhelming public support in opposition to the house’s relocation here. More than 235 Kent citizens, as well as neighboring businesses, have signed a community petition for preserving the green space. Furthermore, the Planning Commission already rejected a similar site plan on July 17.

Some say the commission exceeded its authority by responding to public input. However, the Planning Commission — a division of the Community Development department — should consider such input. This project is publicly funded through a $40,000 Kent State grant and a $15,000 unsecured loan with unspecified amounts of in-kind services from the city, and this alone is reason to weigh citizen concerns.

Finally, truly vacant lots exist downtown that better suit the house and offer more viability: the corner of College and Franklin avenues, closest to the original site; the former Hillel site on North Lincoln Street; Gougler Avenue, along the river near the Hike and Bike Trail; and Summit and Franklin near the farmer’s market.

I continuously search alternatives. Every location has pros and cons, but in the interest of preserving two valuable cultural resources and urban gardens, let’s join for a win-win that benefits everyone in our community.

Jeff Ingram is the executive director of Standing Rock Cultural Arts.