The Watergate was an early example of modernism; the first of its six buildings opened in the 1960s. It was designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti. Its real fame came as the site of the 1972 burglary that eventually toppled President Richard Nixon. DC declared it a historic landmark in 2005. Photograph of Watergate by Hoberman Collection/Corbis
Other groups of women, especially a couple of patriotic organizations based in Washington, picked up the preservation cause. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, founded in 1891 and headquartered in the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, has restored nearly 30 houses, including John Mason’s Gunston Hall in Fairfax County. The Daughters of the American Revolution, which has its headquarters near the White House, also took preservation to heart after its founding in 1890. In 1916 the organization began installing iron fences around the 40 surveying stones set in 1790 to mark the boundaries of DC.
The federal government’s interest in preservation began after the Civil War and was led by the War Department. It took control of important battlefields, including Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and continued to oversee Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington, seized at the beginning of the war and soon surrounded by military graves. The War Department also took over Ford’s Theatre after Lincoln’s assassination, using it to house clerks, 22 of whom were killed when a structural failure caused it to collapse in 1893; restoration for use as a theater did not occur until the 1960s.
Virginia, the cradle of presidents and capital of the Confederacy, took an early interest in protecting its legacy. Before the Civil War, private groups in Alexandria were interested in saving buildings associated with hometown hero George Washington, including Gadsby’s Tavern, Christ Episcopal Church, and the John Carlyle House. Others bought and began restoring Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1923 and Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home, Stratford Hall, in 1929. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, created in 1889, figured in the protection of the site of the Jamestown settlement. Most ambitious, beginning in the mid-1920s, was the restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital. The money came from John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s pushed the federal government into preservation. The National Park Service, created in 1916 to protect natural wonders in the West, assumed control of the Civil War battlefields and took over many historic sites, including Appomattox Courthouse and Harpers Ferry. Blair House, threatened with demolition, was bought by the federal government in 1942 and became a guest house for official visitors. The Park Service also was put in charge of developing a new list of nationally significant historic landmarks.
Another crucial moment for preservation came in 1946, when Alexandria became the third American city to pass a law protecting historic properties, following the example of Charleston and New Orleans. Georgetown—which had existed, along with Alexandria, prior to the move of the capital here in 1800—got a preservation law in 1950. It had a rich collection of homes built in the 18th and early 19th centuries, many of which were being renovated. When construction of the Whitehurst Freeway just after World War II resulted in demolition of the historic home of Francis Scott Key at the entrance to Key Bridge, outraged residents got through Congress a law creating a board to regulate demolition, new construction, and renovation in the neighborhood. The Old Georgetown Board, made up of three architects, remains a powerful force: It recently rejected the contemporary design of a new Apple computer store on Wisconsin Avenue because its design was deemed out of character.
The creation by Congress in 1949 of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now headquartered in a historic apartment house near Dupont Circle, gave the preservation movement new momentum. The Mellon family was instrumental in its creation, with much of the political groundwork done by David Finley, the first director of the Mellon-created National Gallery of Art.
Modeled on an organization in England, the National Trust promotes preservation and owns nearly 30 historic houses. Three are in DC: Stephen Decatur House on Lafayette Square, Woodrow Wilson House in Kalorama, and the cottage at the Armed Forces Retirement Home that Lincoln used as a weekend retreat. Others are in Virginia, including James Madison’s Montpelier, Oatlands plantation in Loudoun County, and, on the same Fairfax site, Woodlawn Plantation and a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
The trust, headed by former Democratic operative Richard Moe, also is a political advocate. It helped organize the campaign to prevent Disney from building a theme park in Northern Virginia in the mid-1990s.
Don’t Tear It Down
Historic buildings face many threats, including some that are sudden. The Capitol and the White House, newly built at the time, were burned by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Many historic storefronts along 7th and 14th streets were destroyed during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Fires in 2007 damaged Eastern Market and the Georgetown Public Library, though both are being rebuilt.
Other treasures fall victim to neglect. Some are lost forever, but others are resurrected—such as the Willard Hotel, which 30 years ago was an empty shell. On the west campus of St. Elizabeths mental hospital, more than 60 old brick buildings, many from the 19th century, are boarded up awaiting renovation.
Sometimes historic buildings are sacrificed for what is considered the greater good. The Federal Triangle was Washington’s first great example in the 1930s, when several square blocks were torn down to make way for a federal office complex. Construction of the National Archives meant demolition of the city’s central food market. The Kennedy Center replaced the city’s largest brewery. And the Army Medical Museum, a handsome brick building on the Mall, was demolished to build the Hirshhorn Museum.