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Anacostia loses another 19th century home from neglect

For the past two decades Hannah Hawkins has watched a 120-year-old house gradually deteriorate behind the community center she runs in historic Anacostia. The crumbling home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE will be demolished this spring.

2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has owned the home and several adjacent properties since July 2010. DHCD filed for the raze because, as a historic preservation official noted, "all the exterior walls seemed to be leaning and not necessarily in the same direction."

Losing this building will create yet another hole in a historic district which has more than its share of empty lots thanks to demolition by neglect. Developers say it will likely take years before anything is built here, meaning Anacostia residents will have to live with this damaged urban fabric for quite some time.

The Historic Preservation Review Board worried that allowing the raze would encourage other property owners to just let buildings deteriorate and then apply to tear them down rather than spend the money to fix the historic structures. HPRB allowed the process to continue once DHCD created a plan to preserve the other 3 adjacent properties on the "Big K site," 2234, 2238 and 2252 MLK.

DHCD's neighborhood holdings

Anacostia's Historic District has been endangered for decades. Photo by the author.
DHCD currently owns more than a half dozen properties, not including the Big K site, within the Anacostia Historic District, incorporated in the 1970s. It is looking for developers for 4 properties (1201 and 1203 Good Hope Road SE, 1615 V Street SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE).

A 3-story red brick apartment complex at 1700 to 1720 W Street SE is in the process of being sold, and 1648 U Street SE is moving through the Residential Turnkey Initiative, where the District retains ownership of properties during development.

With pressure from residents and the Historic Preservation Review Board, DHCD has "develop[ed] a more strategic approach to acquiring properties in the historic district, which would include a pre-acquisition analysis to determine the scope of work to stabilize a building," according to materials the agency submitted to the HPRB.

In other words, DHCD agrees that it shouldn't buy a building if it can't care for it.

DHCD also announced plans to work with the Historic Preservation Office to create a "pattern book" that "would suggest basic architectural styles that are representative of Anacostia's Historic District." This pattern book would guide developers of vacant lots to "ensure that DHCD-owned property is compatible with the historic district, while still providing opportunities for affordable housing," said Denise Johnson, a former HPRB member hired by DHCD to work on historic preservation issues.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which owns vacant properties in Anacostia, Deanwood, Trinidad/Ivy City, and other neighborhoods should also be guided by a similar preservation plan, HPRB members agreed.

Absent from both the community meeting earlier last week and Thursday's hearing was DHCD's Director John Hall. Catherine Buell, Chair of HPRB and a resident of the Anacostia Historic District, asked about Hall's whereabouts. The answer: Hall has to prepare for February budget hearings.

With Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown calling for an investigation into DHCD, Hall should make a conscientious effort to be as accessible and transparent as possible. However, his recent absence hints at problems for an organization that looks to be coming under newfound and needed scrutiny.


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.
When Rosalind Wheeler Styles was growing up at 2228 Nichols Avenue SE in the 1960s she often sat on the front porch watching the activity of the street below.

"You could watch people going into the Safeway, going to the drug store to get an ice cream float, or going to the Curtis Brothers furniture store," said Styles, who remembers an Anacostia long since changed.

Hawkins, whose community center at 2263 Mount View Place SE is across the alley behind the wood frame home, has more immediate memories of the home and its deterioration. The Kushner family, notorious owners of the Big K Liquor store, woefully neglected the property, which was last occupied in the 1970s.

"There was trash everywhere. Homeless men were sleeping on the back porch," said Hawkins, who recalls repeatedly chasing off squatters until a fence was erected around the lot some years ago.

Although not required to notify the lot's conterminous neighbors, the city government has failed to make a good faith effort to contact Hawkins or Dale Richardson, the owner of Astro Motors at 2226 MLK Avenue, about the city's pending plans to demolish 2228.

Until a recent visit from Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry's staff, Hawkins had not heard from city officials and subsequently decried the city's handling of the property as "criminal" at a meeting at DHCD's headquarters, a short walk from the community center.

Hawkins chastised city officials as "interlopers" who antagonize residents by imposing their plans on communities not before the fact, but after. "And I don't plan to try to play catch up. If you're not going to knock on my door or call me on the telly then so be it," finished Hawkins.

"That house means a lot to me because it was a refuge for me," said Bill Jackson, who first crept into 2228 MLK in November of 2010 to seek shelter from the streets. Jackson, now in an apartment off Southern Avenue, says the home's demolition "will be a sad day for a lot of people in the neighborhood."

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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On the subject of a non responsive DHCD I called about a house listed as owned by DCHD 454 N St NW and after several switches to various extensions left a message for A Barbara who is the project manager . The voicemail said I would hear back in 24 hours. No call back yet 3 workdays later.

by danmac on Jan 31, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

All of DHCD's systemic and decades long list of failure aside, why is DHCD even buying "historic" properties in the first place?

In DHCD's world, they need to do as much "good" and provide housing to the greatest number of people they can with the money they have.

Buying these properties with the expectation to preserve their existing structure is a misguided waste of DHCD dollars. They should buy/condemn these structures and build a useful and efficient structure in its place that architectually can incorporate some exterior finishes that are respectful of the historic asthetic of the neighborhood.

In practical terms, DHCD buying run down historic properties is the same thing as them buying ridiculously tiny 2 bedroom row houses in Georgetown for a million is a enormous and inefficient waste of money.

by freely on Jan 31, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

It doesn't look like those buildings on Hannah Hawkins's property are being maintained either.

by east side on Jan 31, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

Why wasn't this property available at auction? For $20k purchase price I would have bought it, thrown $50k into it and rented it to anyone who wanted to live there.

At some point, we as a city have to put the rhetoric aside and decide if the city government will ever be able to meet the social goals that we assign it. So much money intended for good purposes simply goes to bad people with good friends.

by EB on Jan 31, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

Update to my earlier comment. I got a response from Barbara at DCHD. The project has finally gotten the necessary approvals and is awaiting signatures on an MOU . Barbara is hoping to get those so that construction can begin the end of this month. The project has taken 3 years to get to this point with no clear explanation for the delays. This would probably be a good case study to document the business process bottlenecks that require improvement.

by danmac on Feb 1, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

I'd like to thank the taxpayers of the District for generously providing jobs to people who purport to take care of historic sites. Awfully generous of you and all, but can't you just let the properties go on the market? The city is ready for change, but the DC government is stuck in a 1970's mentality.

by Cephas on Feb 1, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

That house was destroyed years ago. Hurrah to the District for taking action to consolidate 3 empty lots so something new can bloom there.

by mphs on Feb 1, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Sad sad story. Too many old properties like this are forgotten, go to waste and then are lost to the wrecking ball.

by Ghosts of DC on Feb 2, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

Newly working to the area those houses are eye sores but doesnt mean they werent in a good space and good size to have become something beautiful in this community. Sad to see it has to result in demolishing one of them instead of trying to perserve them. Hopefully something good happens to the next 2 houses and development hurry and starts, so by next year something nicer can be seen on the strip.

by Angelica on Feb 3, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

@east side

That's another story. That whole corner is bombed out.

by John Muller on Feb 8, 2012 2:09 am • linkreport

My family lived in this home from approx. 1908 to 1965. I have written various letters to several people over the years offering pictures, family history anything that would help save our old home. The reports I have seen presented recommending destruction had completely wrong historical information in them. We purchased this home from the Mudd Family (yes, the Boothe Dr). My mothers one wish was to return to the house but we could never get permission. This was wrong in so many ways. But I will say that Housing Dept contacted me by email today with a nice letter, which I never expected.

by Kathleen Robertson on Nov 21, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

Sad story but it is indeed an absolute eyesore. I'm not even sure if attempting to preserve it is even worth it since they sat in ruin for so long.

I know several people (including me) who'd expressed interesting in acquiring the property but the run around wasn't worth it.

Next they can start cleaning up the liquor/convenience stores

by HogWash on Nov 21, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport

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