Fairmount Heights hopes to preserve history by putting it on display

February 7, 2013

As Fairmount Heights officials prepare to showcase the town’s heritage, they won’t have one landmark historic structure that had gone into foreclosure and recently burned in a fire.

The Pittman House at 505 Eastern Ave., built in 1907 by prominent black architect William Sidney Pittman, was damaged by a fire Dec. 15. The blaze destroyed much of the interior, according to Prince George’s County fire officials, who say the fire was caused by arson.

Town officials said the damage to the historic building is a reminder of the importance of promoting and preserving historic landmarks. They hope a bus-tour showcase of the town’s historic sites Feb. 16 will encourage residents to become more involved in preservation efforts.

Fairmount Heights is home to 22 county-registered historic sites, including the Pittman House. The town is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places as the Fairmount Heights Historic District. The town was one of the first municipalities incorporated by black residents in Maryland.

John Peter Thompson, chairman of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission, said Pittman built the home for himself and his wife, Portia Marshall Washington, daughter of educator and author Booker T. Washington. Pittman helped develop the housing community in Fairmount Heights, Thompson said, and he designed schools and other public buildings in Fairmount Heights and the District.

Fairmount Heights Mayor Lillie Thompson-Martin said the town hoped to apply for state or federal grants to acquire and renovate the bank-owned Pittman House, but the plan gained little traction after the town manager position became vacant in July.

“We would love to say that it’s in our possession, but something has to be done with it,” Thompson-Martin said. “We can’t just buy it and leave it in disrepair.”

In addition to finding a full-time city manager to secure funding for preservation, Thompson-Martin said, she hopes that promoting heritage through events such as the bus tour will encourage protection of the town’s historic sites.

“I think if we actually draw positive attention to the town and its heritage, it will help in the long run,” Thompson-Martin said. “We could get someone to come out, even a developer, saying, ‘I would like to contribute to making this town restorative and historic.’ ”

Although most of the town’s historic sites are privately owned, Thompson-Martin said the vast majority have been well maintained.

Aaron Wilson, a former town councilman, said the key to preserving sites is to energize town residents. He said he hopes the bus tour will help.

“Many younger and newer residents may not know the significance the town does hold, like having one of the first African American fire and police departments within the town limits,” Wilson said.

“If you can teach people about the history and make it personal for them to understand,” he said, “then they can have pride in it.”

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