A passion for preservation, mixed with an eye for business
Apr 10, 2016 02:02PM
By Steven Hoffman
Middletown artist Diane Laird in her home studio.
By John Chambless
Diane Laird's love of historic buildings is reflected in her watercolor paintings, and in her work with the Delaware Economic Development Office, which makes sure that towns bring the best of the past into the future.
In the lower level of her home near Historic Odessa is a work area and showplace for her colorful paintings of local places. Her detailed renderings of Middletown, Rock Hall, Odessa and beyond are a natural companion to her advocacy for preserving historic downtowns.
“My grandmother was an artist, but she didn't start painting until she was in her 50s,” Laird said. “In high school I wanted to pursue architecture, but found that commercial interior design was what I really wanted to do. I went to the College of New Jersey to study design, and ended up doing commercial design for about 15 years, and teaching at the college. I did perspective drawings and architectural renderings as a designer.”
Laird moved to her current home 18 years ago, when her twin son and daughter were young. “I didn't have any connections here and I wasn't sure there was going to be a market for design, so I went back to school for my master's in urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware,” she said. “I hoped to bring the historic preservation together with the interior design and do historic interiors. It didn't pan out that way, but that's OK. My internship at UD was with Main Street in the Delaware Economic Development Office. That's where I've been ever since.”
Laird is the state coordinator of the Main Street Program in Delaware. “Main Street is a national program of downtown revitalization. It uses historic preservation as an economic driver,” she said. “I work with staff and volunteers of communities statewide, giving them technical assistance, providing consultants to help them recruit businesses, work with the existing businesses, identify why buildings are vacant and what they need to get leased, to revitalize commercial districts. Towns often create signature events – parades, annual festivals – to build community and to drive retail opportunities.”
When Laird moved to the Middletown area, “I remember riding through town and thinking, 'There's lots of opportunity here,'” she said diplomatically of the depressed state of the downtown at that time. Several years later, Middletown applied to become a designated Main Street community. Though it began slowly about a dozen years ago in Middletown, Laird has since seen a reinvigorated, coordinated effort to take what is best about the downtown and expand the economic opportunities all around it.
Laird has painted the historic buildings of the downtown – the Everett Theatre, Dog Town and the buildings which hold Purple Sage and Immediato's – in her works. While keeping the past is a concern, “it can be a challenge to keep historic buildings,” she said. “There's the cost of shoring up the structure, and getting it leased in a price range that will make sense with what it will be worth in the end. If it's going to cost $350,000 to get it ready, and it's only worth $250,000 in the end, that's the barrier.
“I'm not a purist preservationist, but I value the historic structures,” she said. “If you go into someone's attic, you don't have to keep everything, but you need to keep certain treasures. Some things may appear to be common, but are often good representations of a particular time.
“I consider myself a bridge. My previous career was focused on new construction. My current career is working to keep the past relevant, where appropriate. But sometimes you have to clean out the attic,” she said, smiling. “Very often, historic structures can be retrofitted to a new use, and that's certainly the goal.”
Laird points to Historic Odessa – the meticulously preserved cluster of Colonial buildings that draws visitors to the region – as a tribute to “very careful administration and oversight through the years.” She also is fond of Rock Hall, Md., where her family has a weekend home. Many of her paintings capture the quirky little buildings of the small town.
While her architectural renderings are tightly drawn in pen and ink, Laird said she has worked to apply looser details and watercolor to make the works distinctive. She works on site, sketching and painting outdoors and usually completing the work before she packs up.
“I'm atypical as a plein-air painter, since I work with a combination of mediums, watercolor and pen and ink,” she said. “Most artists in plein-air competitions use pure oils, pastels or just watercolor.”
Laird is now experimenting with very loosely applied watercolor and gouache washes over her drawings, which may add a whole new dimension to her style. “It's time to experiment a little bit,” she said. “It may produce a little more colorful, painterly quality. I seek God, and I believe that he planted the seed in me. That's why I could never, as much as I've been frustrated, not do this. Art is part of who I am. I think this new direction makes use of my skill, but makes the art a little bit more fun, a little more suggestive.”
Her paintings are always popular with buyers. Her original paintings, prints and notecards are sold at The Hickory Stick in Rock Hall, at Smyrna Cards and Gifts, at regional art shows and online through her website, www.simplejoysllc.com. Last year, she funded a trip to Curacao by selling seven of the paintings she created while there.
Closer to home, she is an advocate for sensible development, although she has reservations about the traffic in downtown Middletown that has followed the booming commercial areas to the east and west of downtown. She's proud of her involvement in Project Pop-Up in the state, which has brought small businesses to vacant downtown locations. As part of the initiative, business owners are given an initial three months of free rent to get off the ground. One of her first success stories is Amber Shader of Amber Shader Photography and First & Little in Middletown, who moved her photography and children's accessories business into a tiny space next to the Everett, and has thrived. “She's kind of the poster child for Pop-Up,” Laird said of Shader. In the past four years, 18 businesses were matched with vacant properties in half a dozen towns in Delaware. Of those, 13 are still in business in their original locations.
The quaint shops and family businesses of downtowns inevitably feel the pinch when big-box retailers open outside of town, Laird said. “In a consumer-driven society, I'm not sure that everything we want could be held in a downtown anymore. We want stuff,” she said. “Business owners will tell me, 'Walmart stole my customers,' but I say, 'You have a great opportunity to offer customers exceptional service, a unique product line, and cater to your customers.' You're not going to find personal service at big-box stores. So they have to work a little harder, but they can make a go of it.”
In a case of society coming full circle, “there's now a strong national trend of people wanting to come back to downtown,” Laird said. “Boomers want to move back, so they can walk to dinner and buy their gifts in independent shops, but be close enough so they can drive to Walmart or Target.” Ideally, renovated downtown buildings have retail on their ground floors and housing above them, to keep residents – and shoppers – from going elsewhere.
In Middletown, Laird has painted the facade of the Everett Theatre, and said, “It's a little gem. It's retained so much of its historic character. That little canopy brings a great sense of scale to the street. At night, when it's lit up, it creates a great sense of excitement.”
In Smyrna, she points to the Painted Stave Distillery on West Commerce Street, which is built in an old theater, as a notable success. In Milton, she said the Milford Playhouse is another such ideal reimagining of a space.
And getting the long-vacant former Wachovia Bank at the hub of downtown Middletown up and running as a restaurant “will be a huge win,” she said. “For the longest time, it was vacant. The bank left, the building went up for auction. The buyer that was most interested was a commumnity bank. It would have been an ideal fit, but somebody from the back of the auction floor bid more. It was an investor from Washington, D.C., who bought the building and let it sit. It was vacant for eight years. So that's why it's such a victory now. It's one of the few remaining vacant spaces in downtown Middletown. There's parking right there, there'll be a great restaurant in there, and it's going to be a great space. I can't wait to see it finished.
“That's the ideal when it comes to preservation – keeping a space active, and alive,” she said. “You retain the fabric of the history, but keep the building in use. That's truly bringing the past into the present.”
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.