The Future of the Past
Every five years, D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office has to come up with a plan for the next five. A couple weeks ago, with another deadline looming, the staff called a public meeting to figure out what to do next.
This gathering, like many chitchats about safeguarding old buildings, was heavy on activists whose own ages also skew historic. During the breakout session, they fretted about recruiting the next generation, reaching people outside wealthy Wards 3 and 6, and combating a creeping perception that preservationist busybodies just want to prevent homeowners from putting in new windows or back decks. Should there be a Young Preservationists organization? How do we use the Internet better to tell people what we’re all about?
The existential angst has been around for a while. A year ago, the Historic Preservation Review Board got a new chair who seemed to symbolize everything the preservation establishment wasn’t: 31-year-old lawyer Catherine Buell, an African-American resident of Anacostia, who understands the skepticism that’s often directed towards veteran preservationists.
“The two worlds are still completely far apart,” she says. “Longtime preservationists are getting really uncomfortable with how unpopular they’ve become, and they haven’t gotten traction with more and more audiences that are important.”
To that end, Buell has instituted some reforms. Her office has started a Facebook group, put a lot more information on its own website, and invited newbies to events around the city. Blog comments get printed out for board members to read, meaning people who can’t make the day-long hearings still get to weigh in.
Those outreach efforts are good, albeit somewhat basic in an age of social media. But Buell faces a bigger, more structural challenge: The preservationists, in large part, have already won. The city’s most iconic buildings have been saved. Since the enactment of the District’s historic preservation law in 1978, more than 800 historic landmarks have been designated, and 50 historic districts cover much of the city’s core.
Which means, these days, that more time is spent fretting over new buildings that just happen to abut old ones—a more subjective enterprise. And when the campaigns still involve saving structures from the wrecking ball, the buildings tend to be less beloved, like the Brutalist (but historically significant) Third Church of Christ Scientist. The HPO itself, facing an increasing caseload as development pressures have increased, is debating whether to focus on only the best examples of distinctive architecture.
The answer is pretty simple: In order to hang on, preservationists need to let go. Don’t fight to make new buildings fit seamlessly into their surroundings, and don’t view historic designation as a way to control the details of your neighbor’s remodel. Instead, make a case for why preservation matters, and why people should care.
To think about where the next generation of preservationists is going to come from, it helps to remember that the current one was once young, too.
Although residents rallied around old buildings as early as the 1920s, D.C.’s grassroots preservation movement really sprouted up in the 1960s, after urban renewal had leveled the rowhouses of Southwest and threated charismatic buildings like the Old Post Office and the Willard Hotel. In researching that history, Buell found an archived photo of a young woman protesting in front of a building at 7th and F streets NW. “I remember thinking ‘yup, I get it, I get why Don’t Tear It Down was established,’” she says, referring to the organization that became the D.C. Preservation League.
A few decades ago, young non-millionaires could still buy historic homes in Mount Pleasant, Dupont Circle, and Capitol Hill. After the enactment of a strong historic preservation law, those who had invested in their houses began organizing to preserve the rest of them. It was a challenge: At one point, Mayor Marion Barry put a moratorium on the consideration of new historic districts, so residents knew they would have to demonstrate overwhelming community support.
That original corps is sparser and older now. In recent years, Brookland, Chevy Chase, and Barney Circle have rebuffed local efforts to get historic designation. Living up to fusty caricature, several longtime preservationists I spoke with blamed…the Internet.
“The rumor mill, especially now with electronic communication, flieth fast and furious,” says Richard Longstreth, director of the historic preservation graduate program at George Washington University, who often testifies in preservation cases. “There can be a couple of people who don’t like the idea who send stuff out and put the fear of God in people, and usually, their fear is baseless.”
That may be the case: Certainly, it’s not true that the city can take away your house for refusal to comply with the rules, or that protected homes can’t be insured, as anti-designation people at times alleged, according to preservationists.
But it’s true that historically sensitive renovations can take longer and cost more, thanks to more elaborate permitting rules and prohibitions on cheap materials like vinyl windows. Especially in low-to-middle-income neighborhoods—where preservationists face the perception that historic status is a way of pushing poor people out—that’s a harder sell.
So in potential new protected areas—and even places with existing protections—preservationists need to be able to talk about what’s in it for neighborhoods. I asked the director of the D.C. Preservation League, Rebecca Miller, to make the argument for mandated preservation. She paused, and then answered that legal protections empowered residents to control some of the change that happens around them. “The preservation ordinance gives them a degree of influence,” Miller says, over “matter-of-right development that the community might not be comfortable with.”
That’s not a positive case, though. After all, what allows you control over your neighbors also allows your neighbors to control you. In Barney Circle, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven found that proponents of an historic district mainly wanted to prevent ugly new additions and tear-downs of existing buildings, which zoning rules don’t prevent.
“Nobody was talking about doors and windows,” which historic designation would regulate, Flahaven said. “The policy solution wasn’t there. All they could look for was the historic district.”
The thing is, preserving distinguished architecture and well-constructed neighborhoods can be one of the best ways for real estate to hold its value. Places that look like they were once prosperous send a message that they could be again. Anacostia, for example, with its dignified Victorian houses, has the bones of a well-functioning community, and many homeowners take great pride in their investments. Historic designation solves a collective action problem, ensuring that all residents benefit from the presence of quality and unique building stock.
“The neighborhoods that are in historic districts, a lot of times are the ones that end up being the most sought after, and the most expensive,” says ANC 6D Commissioner David Garber, who renovated and sold a house in Anacostia. “I wanted to be in a place that I thought would hold value as a result of people who were forced to make improvements that were sensitive to what was originally there.”
But to convince more people that preservation will improve their lives, it would help to have regulations that watchdog against the big things—DCPL is working on laudable new rules against demolition by neglect—without making it easy for some unhappy neighbor to trip you up over a large back deck or insulated windows. And there’s no reason why new construction on empty land should be held to some arbitrary standard of historicity, usually couched in terms of “compatibility” and “appropriateness.” On an aesthetic level, these rules often lead to faux-feeling buildings and dumb down the kind of daring architecture that would compliment historic neighborhoods. And on a more basic, political level, they position preservation as something that gets in the way of building on vacant lots, the crime magnets that irritate residents of lower-income neighborhoods.
In the absence of a clear and present danger to the kind of buildings that inspire awe just by looking at them, that’s the kind of preservation regime that can survive and thrive in the 21st century. Even if it probably still won’t inspire young people to spend their happy hours at preservation meetings. CP
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