Housing Complex

Forget Me Lots: Preservationists Fight the Slow Death of Shaw’s Historic Alleys

In the end, the developer’s decision was legal—The historic carriage house could be demolished. Its roof was caving in toward the back, and engineers had deemed it structurally unsound. But that diagnosis hasn’t quieted the preservationists of Blagden Alley and Naylor Court, two of the last remaining 19th-century alley communities in Washington.

Close to a year later, people still have their suspicions that the tear-down was a cop-out, an easy solution to the carriage-house preservation vs. demolition debate.

The incident in question occurred around July 4, 2008. Crews started demolishing the structure behind 1316 9th St. NW at the start of the long weekend, when people are planning to hold barbecues and watch fireworks. Neighbors will tell you the timing was definitely on purpose.

Hal Davitt, then the head of the neighborhood civic group, and his wife, Marthlu Bledsoe, returned to their home to “God knows how many calls” about the carriage house, according to Bledsoe.
“We went tearing over there,” Bledsoe says, “and I must say, it was appalling.”

Davitt says he’s “not completely convinced” that it was necessary to knock down the structure.
All around Blagden Alley and Naylor Court, there are buildings similar to the one torn down July Fourth weekend: Some appear ready to collapse, others have been taken care of and preserved.

One’s an unmarked Pilates studio; another’s a boxing gym. A few of them have cinder blocks cemented inside old doors and window spaces, while others are roofless shells that hark back to their original days as horse shelters, shored up with dilapidated wood and mismatched bricks.

For his part, developer Grant Epstein of Community Three Development said the July demo was a last resort. “This thing was built over 100 years ago—it doesn’t meet any safety standards or codes that are around today.” But he’s embracing the alley way-of-life by building two of his condos with alley main entrances: “If more people do that, the alley will come back to what it was—a place where people live,” he says.

Blagden Alley and Naylor Court—which sit inside a rectangular area bounded by O Street on the north side, M Street on the south side, and 10th and 9th Streets to the west and east respectively—became a D.C. historic district in 1990. In their application for the designation, Davitt and others argued the alleys “illustrate important areas of significance in the history of urban development in Washington D.C.: architecture, community planning and development, black ethnic heritage and social history.”

Davitt and Bledsoe, who’ve lived in their M Street home since 1980, have found company in some of the neighborhood’s newer residents.

David Salter has lived on Naylor Court for five years and took the initiative to get Blagden and Naylor on the D.C. Historic Preservation League’s list of D.C.’s Most Endangered Places 2009. In 2008, he began writing the blog Preserving DC Stables and has posted 46 fairly lengthy items about his subject.

His blog intro reads: “The Alleys of DC and the stables were the pulse of the city. To destroy an original stable and replace it with a building ‘that looks like a stable’ reveals profound ignorance of the value of architectural originality.”

He sent over several photos, including one of a recently constructed alley building with a faux brick exterior. “Stable lite blagden alley,” he titled it.

The stable lovers want the original buildings to stay up, or at the very least, they want the buildings’ original materials to be used in reconstruction. They think that developers would rather just demolish the smaller buildings to build slightly bigger ones.

In the whole of Blagden Alley and Naylor Court, however, only two of the historic buildings have been completely torn down in the last decade, says Steve Callcott of the Historic Preservation Review Board, who’s been reviewing projects there since 1992. But over time, they’ve often been slowly “altered a good deal,” he says. “They’re modest buildings to begin with. They don’t have the ornament and architectural character that a street-fronting building has. Their value is in their simplicity.…They’re not necessarily architecturally pure examples of buildings.”

Thus, a historical renovation often involves a remaining piece of an old property. Take, for example, an old 20th-century garage under renovation right now. The façade was ripped off years ago, so the building was a roof and walls. Now, it’s being transformed into a two-story building that’s going to be “somewhat contemporary,” says Callcott; he thinks it may be used for condos.

The demand for condos is part of what’s fueling the changes on the alleys—but with construction comes complications.

“Some of these alley buildings are not as substantially built as row houses and were not envisioned to be permanent.…Without proper attention, disrepair can accelerate quickly such that…the building is little more than an unsupported masonry shell,” he writes in an e-mail.

Although it’s hard to find any locals who want to see more buildings come down, Callcott’s view is that they’re not wholly anti-development.

“It’s not a NIMBY neighborhood,” he says—which, if true, is a good thing, because with the Washington Convention Center one block away, a colossal Giant and mixed-used project in the works for 7th Street, and little restaurants and shops sprouting up in the old boarded-up wreckage, the area’s on a fast path toward becoming another U Street.

Yet it’s clear that people here still have attachments to the old-fashioned. Salter is one. He writes in an e-mail: “Old buildings are like old people. Each one has a past history and most have led interesting lives. Some have been well looked after and others have led an abused life.”

The D.C. Office of Planning apparently agrees, at least with the concept of helping Salter look after his own historic stable. The office approved a $25,000 grant to offset the costs of “replacement of stone window sills and brick re-pointing,” according to spokesperson Anita Hairston. The money was released earlier this week.

  • http://www.manifestdensity.net Tom

    I live in an apartment off the pictured alley, and I have to say that I'm a little confused by the case being made by the preservationists. To the extent that any buildings along it embody the "pulse of the city" -- and other than bands loading into the practice space by 9th street, cars driving down it and the occasional pack of roving teens, there isn't much -- it isn't the rotting shells pictured that are responsible for it. When I see my neighbors out grilling they're doing it in front of their perfectly attractive, not-at-all-garish and completely livable new homes, not in front of a roofless pile of rotting timbers.

    This is a city, not a fucking museum. I've got no interest in preserving a neighborhood culture that disappeared decades ago, particularly if it's done at the expense of the neighborhood as it currently exists. But then, as a renter I don't have any property taxes that might shoot up if the alley is improved -- which is what I suspect may actually be at play here.

  • Paul

    Well Tom, the pictures are from Naylor Court and there you find four types of buildings. Those that have been meticulously restored (there are several), those that have been allowed to rot for gain by their usually-absentee owners (in this instance it was much cheaper for the developer to do the work if he tore down this perfectly stable pre-civil war building and could access the interior using heavy equipment -- I know it was stable because I personally sealed it mere months prior to its demolition to stop the ongoing use as a crack whore den), those that are owned in somewhat-absentminded neglect by the city (the DC archives building which should be restored but at least it is no longer rotting), and then the monstrosity mentioned. All of the first three classes of buildings have vibrant futures in adaptive reuse. As for the fourth, the city abandoned all of the rules that apply to everyone else when it allowed the developer to strip it of all of its historic value. The result is hideous on top of that. Not only did they allow the teardown, but new buildings are supposed to be contextual and this one instead looks mostly like some kind of cheap apartment building thrown up in the 1950s down near the interstate. I mean really, state that a historic building has a leaky roof and then you can tear it down? "It doesn't meet modern code?" Of course not, and neither do any of the other city buildings built 150 years ago -- other developers are told to bring these buildings up to code when renovating, not allowed to raze them in the middle of the night. These guys were in such a rush that they almost brought down the building next door as well (it's true, they broke through the wall into BeBar).

    No one is trying to stop redevelopment of these properties, in fact the resident owners try quite hard to get vacant building restored and make this a livable and usable public space. I am a property owner who fights for renovation of the existing buildings, and trust me property taxes rise ever year without fail one way or the other. So, I'm sorry if you are angry but your anger is focused on the wrong place. If it were not for city incompetence and its mind-numbing inability/unwillingness to crack down on owners who let historic structures rot then this alley would be full of vibrant life and value.

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