In historic districts composed mainly of homes, the preservation law gives the Historic Preservation Office regulatory power that plays out mostly when a homeowner wants to make alterations or additions. Interior renovations—redoing a kitchen—are not reviewable. The focus is on the appearance of a house’s exterior, especially the front, because that most affects its compatibility with the neighborhood. Any exterior alteration that requires a building permit—an addition, new roof, new windows, porches, railings, steps, and other changes—must be approved by the HPO, with some disputes resolved by the Historic Preservation Review Board. The color of exterior painting is not regulated—a looser standard than in some suburban subdivisions.
About 3,600 permits were requested in DC historic districts during 2007. Two districts accounted for the most—905 on Capitol Hill and 622 in Georgetown—but there also were 294 in the area around U Street, 256 in Dupont Circle, 209 in Mount Pleasant, and 168 in Cleveland Park. About 90 percent were handled administratively, issues worked out over the counter between the Historic Preservation Office staff and homeowners or their architects, with others going to the Historic Preservation Review Board for action. Councilman Jack Evans was one of those who applied in 2006—getting approval to cut a new window into the side of his brick home in Georgetown to ventilate an up stairs bathroom.
The replacement of windows in historic houses is one of the most common sources of contention. A few owners prefer to replace older wood-framed windows with cheaper ones framed with vinyl. The Historic Preservation Office nearly always prohibits this on the grounds that the new windows are historically out of place. In some cases, when owners have forged ahead without a permit, they have been cited by city inspectors, fined, and forced to rip out the new vinyl windows and replace them.
Many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods have carried historic status for years, but others are being added now. The most recent were Washington Heights, an area near the Washington Hilton, in 2006 and Foxhall Village in 2007.
Not every neighborhood with lots of older homes is eager for historic designation—a fact that became obvious last fall in a vote in Chevy Chase DC. While one group of activists pushed for recognition by the city, another group rose in opposition—filling neighborhood lawns with signs both for and against. Those in favor argued that designation would prevent knockdowns of older homes and construction of out-of-scale McMansions. But opponents feared that residents would lose the freedom to alter their homes as they pleased if they became entangled in the historic-preservation bureaucracy, whose rules they considered too arbitrary and vague. The Historic Preservation Review Board has power to create a historic district without a favorable neighborhood vote, but the outcome—363 against to 108 in favor—was enough to kill the idea for now.
Polishing Up Old Treasures
Of the many ways of saving historic buildings, the gold-plated way is to put them through expensive top-to-bottom renovations and restore them to their original use. Hundreds of old Washington houses have enjoyed rebirths, and lots of grand old public places have gotten the full treatment over the past generation. Just a few: the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Castle, the Warner Theatre, the Pension Building, the main building of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the US Botanical Garden, the Mayflower Hotel, Ford’s Theatre, Treasury, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the Mellon Auditorium, the Hay-Adams, the Pentagon, National Theatre, the Renwick Gallery, the Lincoln Cottage, the Monocacy Aqueduct, the Willard, the Old Patent Office, the Freer Gallery, the District Building.
Some historic properties have been saved by being moved out of harm’s way. DC’s oldest house, a wood-frame Georgian in Kalorama known as the Lindens, was built in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1734 and reconstructed in Washington in 1934. The Pope-Leighey house, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, was moved out of the path of I-66 in Arlington and set up on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation. And Adas Israel, built in 1876 at Fifth and F streets as one of DC’s early synagogues, was moved a few blocks east and converted to a Jewish museum to clear a site for Metro headquarters.
Though re-creating buildings lacks authenticity, it is sometimes done in hopes of bringing history to life. Virginia’s colonial capitol at Williamsburg is an example, as is George Washington’s birthplace east of Fredericksburg, which was built from scratch in the 1930s without much knowledge of how it might have looked, a technique once derided as “conjectural reconstruction.” At Mount Vernon, a better-documented replica of George Washington’s whiskey distillery opened in 2007.
Some historic properties achieve new stature by stripping away ill-advised alterations. Only when workers removed a sheet-metal skin from the Greyhound bus terminal in downtown DC was it realized that its art moderne façade remained intact. James Madison’s Montpelier has just gone through a renovation that included removing a couple of additions and pink stucco added by a later owner, one of the du Ponts, to restore the smaller red-brick house that the founding father knew in the 18th century.
When historic buildings are doomed, preservationists may try to keep fragments. The J.W. Marriott hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue incorporates in its façade some stonework from a theater that once stood there. Two dozen Corinthian columns removed from the US Capitol now stand on a hill at the National Arboretum.
One of the most controversial preservation techniques is “façadism”—saving the front edge of older buildings and constructing taller modern offices behind them. Washington in the 1980s was one of the first cities to adopt façadism, which horrified some preservationists but was tolerated by others as the best compromise. The Homer Building on 13th Street is one of many examples—the first four stories of the façade date from 1914, but the guts of the building are new, including a parking garage and eight new floors on top. Adding floors on top of old buildings, a practice pioneered by Shalom Baranes, came to be known as top-hatting. Another variation on façadism can be seen in Red Lion Row west of the White House: The façades of 13 low-rise historic buildings were saved and incorporated into an internal shopping mall that connects with a high-rise office building at the rear of the site.
Condos in the Delivery Room
Because many old buildings outlive their original function, their continued existence often depends on new uses. The pioneers of such recycling in Washington were foreign countries during the Depression. As wealthy families who had built mansions during the Gilded Age found them too expensive to maintain, foreign governments bought the old homes for use as chanceries and as ambassadorial residences, turning Massachusetts Avenue into Embassy Row.
DC’s downtown department stores—Garfinckel’s, Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht’s—have disappeared, but their buildings live on as home to Barnes & Noble, H&M, Rosa Mexicano, and lots of offices. The old Garfinckel’s in Spring Valley is now a Crate & Barrel, the Sears on Wisconsin Avenue is a Best Buy, and a food market built in 1865 in Georgetown is a Dean & DeLuca.