The Old Post Office, built in 1899 in Romanesque Revival style, was slated for demolition by the federal government in the early 1970s, but a group of citizens protested under the banner Don’t Tear It Down and the building was spared. Photograph by Chris Leaman
Anyone who walks the streets can play the game of what should be saved and what could be torn down. How about the bland structures built in the 1950s for the Washington Post Company and the Brookings Institution? On Capitol Hill, how about the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, which stands in modern counterpoint to the neoclassical Capitol and the library’s ornate Jefferson Building? What about two of the city’s most frequently panned structures—the cake-box Kennedy Center and the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
In a culture that often worships the new, there is appeal in the idea of preserving historic buildings as manifestations of the city’s collective memory. Mixed in with newer structures, older buildings give neighborhoods visual richness and variety in scale and style. They’ve played a role in the revival of Washington’s original commercial district north of Pennsylvania Avenue. They are an attraction for tourists; more than 30 historic houses in the region are open to the public.
Washington has evolved into a central player in the preservation movement. The federal government owns many historic properties in the capital, it provides tax breaks for renovation, and the National Park Service is arbiter of the National Register of Historic Places, which now lists 80,000 nationwide. Many preservation groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are headquartered here, and the Mid-Atlantic region is a treasure trove of historic places, from Williamsburg to Fort McHenry. DC’s preservation law, just past the 30th anniversary of its passage, is one of the strongest in the nation.
DC has nearly 600 individually designated landmarks and another 23,500 properties inside 44 historic districts. In the suburbs are another 600 landmarks and 60 historic neighborhoods.
Some of these landmarks are the ones you’d expect: the White House and the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Treasury Building, the Smithsonian Castle and Washington National Cathedral, Robert E. Lee’s house in Arlington and Clara Barton’s in Glen Echo, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, the great monuments to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.
But there are many others less well known: the Uline Arena in Northeast, where the Beatles played their first American concert; the modest suburban home in Alexandria where Gerald Ford lived; a pathology building at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that is the nation’s only building constructed to survive a hydrogen bomb; a gas station on P Street, built in 1937, with the classical look of a bank. Lots of historic buildings have been adapted for new uses, including the 130-foot chimney of the Georgetown incinerator that’s now part of a Ritz-Carlton, a refrigerated warehouse reworked as the Washington Design Center, a Gilded Age mansion on Connecticut Avenue that is home to the Church of Scientology, and a French Renaissance carriage house near Dupont Circle that is now a gay bar.
The regulation of historic properties—both declaring them landmarks and protecting them from demolition—has become embedded in the local real-estate business. Just as no project goes forward these days without a review of its environmental impact, so too has historic preservation taken a seat at the regulatory table. As preservationists and developers have learned to work together, conflicts over individual landmarks have lessened. Though many neighborhoods have welcomed historic designation, others have resisted. Residents of Chevy Chase DC, a Northwest neighborhood on the Maryland line that includes many old homes dating from 1907 to 1947, voted last fall against historic designation by more than three to one.
Washington Slept Here
The idea of historic preservation in the United States goes back to a moonlit night on the deck of a steamer churning along the Potomac River past George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Aboard on that 1853 trip was a South Carolina woman who was saddened to see the “ruin and desolation” of the plantation house that was the pride of the nation’s first president. Her daughter, a frail 37-year-old named Ann Pamela Cunningham, soon began devoting her life to saving Mount Vernon, forming the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, raising money to buy the house, and restoring the property to its 18th-century glory. Today Mount Vernon attracts a million visitors a year.