Housing Complex

The Future of the Past

An historic district saved these old homes in Anacostia. (Lydia DePillis)

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

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or 202-650-6928

  • Newbie

    Lydia, your article is spot on. As a newer preservationist, we are not interested in the contentions battles about properties that may or may not be historic. Rather, we want to make neighborhoods walkable, livable and attractive places to live. Many times this means preserving older buildings and making sure that new construction is not obnoxious (such as the Prince of Petworth - http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/6643/preserve-our-buildings-with-conservation-districts/). This also means supporting “smart” growth efforts that will allow individual communities to thrive.

    The older preservation groups need to get their message straight. DCPL fought to landmark the Third Church of Science, a building whose historic/architectural significance is debatable, only in the end to negotiate a settlement payment well over $500,0000 to allow the developer to demolish the building. What is it? Do they want to preserve buildings or get paid?

    All the while, the battle seems to miss the point. Wards 5, 7 and 8 suffer from the highest level of vacant and blighted properties, and the historic preservation law is really the only protection residents have against demolition of important buildings.

    I applaud the historic preservation office for even having the conversation about what the next 5 years should look like. We need to seriously consider conservation areas, new financial incentives to jumpstart rehabilitation in underserved areas, and continue to engage new leaders in the discussion.

  • Skipper

    Conservation Districts are DOA. They're way too subjective and will mainly be used to - likely unconstitutionally - restrict property rights b/c some neighbor doesn't like the astethics of the design.

    And the demolition by neglect laws are a joke. How often have they been enforced? Very rarely. Why? Because very few judges will find willful criminal violations when a property owner simply doesn't have the money to fix up a decaying property and doesn't want to sell. And who's one of the worst violators of the demolition by neglect? The District government, through DHCD and DCHA.

  • Hillman

    Preservation groups have prevented some true eyesores in DC.

    But they've also been big giant pains.

    My neighbor fought for over a year to get a permeable environmentally friendly paving material approved for her front walkway.

    It looks very similar to brick.

    But it wasn't good enough for Capitol Hill Restoration Society.

    They fought her for a year.

    Now it's down and it looks great.

    More importantly, though, CHRS and a variety of other preservation groups actually fight density.

    Specifically, they get their knickers in a bunch when anyone wants to develop alleyway property into alleyway dwellings (a movement that has proven very popular in other cities). Another neighbor recently had an application to improve a garage overturned because there was an 'historic sightline' over the alley that had to be protected.

    I saw that 'historic sightline'. It was mostly utility wires, rusted tin roofs, and garbage cans.

    Preservation groups have fought alleyway dwellings for decades, with idiocy like 'historic alleyway sightlines'.

    It's stupid, and it makes residents angry.

  • http://sandy1 bunky

    Not a word about the tax impact of the historic preservation movement. Development of valuable property is retarded or prevented by efforts to save old dilapidated properties that nobody cares about and which pay little or no real property taxes. Shouldn't the preservation movement be held to account for the lsot revenue andbe equried to justify why the construction og a large new office building should be stifled, particulary where the new builidng might pay hundred time more property taxes than the prenet use and fund all the fine social programs the preservationists want,

  • Hillman

    Sorry about the double post. Wasn't intentional. First post was held indefinitely for 'review' so I figured it wouldn't go through.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    The ability to use social media and electronic communication surely gets information around more quickly than it could in the past. But what I've seen in the 8 years I've lived in DC is not that it's young people who are fighting historic designation, it's baby boomers and the like. They've discovered the Internet just as much as the younger generations have.

    It's folly to assume that the medium matches an age group. DCPL should realize that everyone who's online isn't under 30, and their opponents are just as good (or better at this point) at organizing.

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  • JM

    While the arguments in this article are basically sound, I'm somewhat baffled by the ageism that riddles it. What difference does it make if the attendees of a particular meeting are young, old, or middle aged? Youth, believe it or not, does not always confer wisdom.

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  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    I don't see any ageism. I see observations that most preservationists are up there in years. Is that incorrect?

    I don't think Lydia is implying that youth confers wisdom, merely that youth confers youth. Once these older preservationalists are gone, who's going to take up the mantle? There don't seem to be many candidates within the ranks.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    JM, it matters because the older preservationists have solutions for all the problems of 1975, just in case that year ever comes back around. They have very poorly adjusted to the circumstances of a growing, vibrant, desirable city rather than a stagnant, shrinking city. People want to live in D.C. (and in the inner suburbs on the Metro). They didn't want to between approx. 1965 (esp. after the 1968 riots) and approx. 2001.

    In a shrinking city, specifically during the modernist/Interstate highway building era, they fought to preserve structures that can accomodate people rather than turning the land over to pedestrian/people hostile wind-swept modernist towers/highways. However, they don't get that in a growing city, the challenge is to accomodate and manage the growth (and growing tax base). Keeping the built environment stagnant is very off-putting the younger/newer residents because they get that lack of residential development only causes their rents to go up in a growing city.

    I wrote a short piece about this a couple of years ago: greatergreaterwashington.org/post/1501/has-preservation-become-an-echo-chamber/. Preservation was supposed to preserve a sense of place. In D.C. and the inner suburbs, it worked. The increased vibrance and desirability of D.C. core neighborhoods, peripheral neighborhoods, and inner suburban neighborhoods is partly due to preserving a sense of place rather than letting them suffer death by highway/modernism. It's time that historic preservationists update their views and goals for our times.

  • http://www.ncpc.gov William H. Herbig

    Balancing preservation and new development is large part of Architect Bing Thom’s talk on Oct. 18. At the NCPC Speaker Series session Mr. Thom will discuss his Arena Stage project; the Southwest neighborhood; and how future developments can build upon the community’s legacy of mid-century modern design.

    You are all invited to join the conversation, but space at the Embassy is limited. Here’s all of the details: http://conta.cc/oN5Av5

  • peter

    what a lot of windy thumbsucking!

  • JLowe

    The strong dislike of the mid-century modernist International-Style buildings reminds me of my youth when the 70-85 year-old Victorian buildings were considered SO ugly and useless that they couldn't tear them down fast enough. Grand Victorian houses became slums, not only because they were in older parts of town, but because young middle-class people refused to live in them.

    Tastes change; fashions come and go. We must preserve all styles and eras, whether we like them this year or not. We may like them again next year.

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