Takoma Park officials, who fought for years against razing the Washington Sanitarium, are upset that an architect who testified, as the hospital's expert, that it was not economically feasible to renovate the "Old San" already had been selected as the developer of a new physicians office building to be constructed once the historic structure was razed.
Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller said the board knew that John C. Wilmot was the hospital's architect, so "we recognized to some degree that he would design the future expansion." But Christeller said the board did not know that Wilmot was an owner of a company that had been selected to build the replacement structure as well.
Washington Adventist Hospital, owner of the Old San, issued a statement yesterday defending its relationship with Wilmot, saying he acted in the best interest of the hospital.
The hospital's arrangement came to light at a City Council meeting last week. Wilmot's opinion was given last November, when preservationists and city officials made a last-ditch effort to save the structure.
The board denied the plea, but its members said that while they were unaware of the arrangement between Wilmot and the hospital, they arrived at their decision independently of Wilmot's testimony or that of another architect, Ward Bucher, hired by groups seeking preservation of the structure.
The 75-year-old sanitarium fell to the wrecker's ball two days before Christmas, and Wilmot's new firm, NuDevCon Inc., is now negotiating the final details of the contract for a $3 million, four-story ambulatory care building that will be constructed adjacent to the site of the Old San. The land on which the Old San was situated will serve as a parking lot for the new facility.
The hospital's statement yesterday said "the agreement has not yet been signed for the new building . However, as far as the hospital is concerned, the relationships with both Wilmot, Bower and Associates the architectural firm and NuDevCon serve its best interests. The hospital intends to continue using Wilmot, Bower and Associates for architectural projects it may embark upon in the future."
Wilmot's role as developer became public during the council meeting when Phil Vogel, a leader of the fight to preserve the San, read a letter from the hospital's president in response to Vogel's question about who would be involved with the development of the new building. Dr. Herbert Z. Shiroma's response, dated Jan. 20, said, "Yes, Mr. John Wilmot is one of the principals of NuDevCon."
The disclosure prompted a brief discussion at the meeting, including criticism of Wilmot's role by Mayor Sammie A. Abbott, who fought the San's demise. Later, members of the council and others also expressed criticism.
Council member Lynne E. Bradley criticized the way the hospital presented its case as "disturbing to us. A lot of us felt there were other architectural options and we wondered why this man didn't seem willing to look at other options."
In his testimony, Wilmot said he had reviewed, and rejected, other options.
City attorney Thomas Gagliardo, who fought the demolition plans through Montgomery County agencies, the County Council and the courts, said "I sure didn't know" about the arrangement.
James S. Baker, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection, who withheld the San's demolition permit while the planning board considered its historic value, said he felt that Wilmot's interest should have been disclosed.
"I do think that Mr. Wilmot, if in fact he knew at that time he was going to be part of the development firm, he should have identified his involvement," park and planning staff coordinator Martha Z. Reinhart said. "This muddies everything."
But Ronald S. Ryner, executive director of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, who knows Wilmot, said "an architect's no different than a lawyer. They do a lot of things and get away with it. If it's legal for a lawyer to tell you only what he wants you to know, I don't think it should be any different for an architect.
"There's nothing sleazy, unethical or immmoral about what he said when he was wearing his architect-consultant hat," Ryner said. "That's business. When you're up before a public body in a nasty situation, you only tell them what you need to."
The new building will cost about $3 million and will offer doctors access to expensive testing and diagnostic equipment at the hospital as part of the contract, according to hospital vice president Gerald M. Northam. Wilmot said it has not been decided whether the offices will be sold as condominiums or as co-op ownership.
Wilmot, who is the head of Wilmot, Bower and Associates, which recently moved to Rockville from Silver Spring, testified before the planning board at the hearing Nov. 16 that he was "given free reign" to study alternative renovations to demolishing the sanitarium. He said converting the wood-frame structure from patient care to another use would cost too much--he said up to $10 million--and block future hospital growth. He advocated that it be demolished to make way for new buildings.
Wilmot said he has been the hospital's architect for two years. In a prepared statement, hospital officials said they selected NuDevCon last August--two months before the hearing date. According to records in the state office of Assessments and Taxation, NuDevCon was incorporated June 10 last year, and its directors are Wilmot and his partner, Boyd O. Bower, and their wives, Alicia Wilmot and Myra J. Bower.
Winning a place for the sanitarium on the county's master plan of historic places was the last hope of city officials, residents and preservationists, who for five years contested the hospital's demoliton plans. Had the planning board granted historic status, laws would have required a study of renovation proposals and hearings before deciding if the building could be destroyed.
The board found the sanitarium met the standards for historic status--it was the first public building in Takoma Park, the first hospital in the county and was the center around which the Seventh-day Adventist community settled as the city of Takoma Park grew up.
But the board and planning staff did not grant historic status to the building, saying the overriding public interest was in ensuring that the hospital could continue to offer medical services.
Planning Board Chairman Christeller said the board did accept the contention of the hospital and Wilmot that by allowing the sanitarium to stand, they would be imposing the economic burden of renovation on the hospital and its patients by blocking the only likely spot for future expansion.