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Preservation work plan misses most important job: clarity

Historic preservation does a lot of good for DC, but property owners need more clarity about what will and won't get approved. The preservation office's latest work plan sadly continues to omit this component, which should instead be one of its top priorities.

Photo by Chiot's Run on Flickr.

DC's historic preservation office has published its annual work plan. It includes many worthwhile endeavors, such as putting more data about historic sites online, helping affordable housing developers qualify for existing federal tax credits, and doing more to preserve and repair the boundary stones.

However, the plan doesn't do anything to address preservation's biggest problem. Right now, there are very few written standards for what is and is not "historically compatible." As a result, the Historic Preservation Review Board makes decisions arbitrarily, mostly built upon individual members' personal aesthetic decisions rather than any rules or precedent.

Most other boards that make decisions follow a much more legalistic format. They have a set of regulations which they are bound to uphold. When considering each case, they look to the relevant regulations, and try to figure out how to fill in gaps when the regulations don't directly address a situation. If a regulation isn't working well, the agency (or legislature) changes it.

In preservation, the law basically only charges HPRB with deciding whether something is "compatible." The only definition of "compatible" comes from historic district standards which describe the nature of a historic district but don't give much detail about many types of potential changes. As a consequence, preservation decisions are fueled by more emotion and less law than other areas.

Preservation staff don't analyze the rules and precedents as thoroughly as they could, or as much as many other boards do. When claiming there is a rule limiting the heights of buildings on 16th Street, the staff report made no mention of the recent Hay-Adams case which set a different standard. When recommending against solar panels on a Cleveland Park home, staff falsely claimed that the current guideline prohibits all solar panels visible from any street.

This isn't impossible to change. The preservation office simply needs to spend more of its time setting up clearer guidelines. They are already doing this in a few areas, such as a new set of rules for utility meters in public space. More of this will help property owners know with more confidence ahead of time what they can and can't do.

When HPRB rejects a project or insists upon changes, it could also publish a written decision explaining what elements of a proposal were not "compatible," which can help clarify for similar cases in the future. Staff reports can be clearer about which guidelines they refer to and point to those guidelines, when such exist, or note that there is no written guideline when there is none.

Instead of doing this, too much of the work plan seems to focus on simply expanding preservation's jurisdiction and bringing more and more of the city under its control. One of the categories, "defining historic significance," mostly focuses on ways to find more historic significance among buildings and educate people more about historic significance. This can be valuable, but is "evangelizing," not "defining."

It may indeed be worthwhile to bring at least some level of preservation protection to significant buildings and neighborhoods which lack it today. But as long as the process remains mysterious and revolves mostly around the aesthetic whims of a few people which shift like the wind, the public won't, and shouldn't, support increasing its reach. The office needs to make it a top priority to get its own house in order, and soon.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Historic preservation is the governmental equivalent to Olympic gymnastics. You can try to develop some broad-based criteria, but the results are ultimately determined by subjective judgments.

by Adam L on Jul 30, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

I'm pretty sure the HPRB doesn't think clarity is the most important function.

by charlie on Jul 30, 2012 4:35 pm • linkreport

Why go to the work of researching and setting standards when you can just drag people up in front of your board, look at their plan, and then just decide based on how it makes you feel?

by MLD on Jul 30, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

I think MLD and Charlie get pretty close to what is really going on.

A few thoughts:

1) The great advantage that the preservationist advocates / HPRB have over the applicant is that they are not incurring any meaningful costs in what has become a war of attrition. So, the HPRB staff (Steve Calcott et al) can send you back for another round of designs from your architect, another site visit w/ your engineer, another presentation to the ANC, etc. They just blithely keep forcing you to incur costs until you exhaust your resources and are forced to either go along with them or quit the project.

The only ones that can fight all the way through are deep pocketed organizations like the Heritage Foundation. They were fought tooth and nail by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the HPRB all the way to the DC Court of Appeals!

Do you think your average bear could absorb that cost? Or do you think a developer could afford to have his project tied up while interest rates change, costs of capital are paid, etc.? Me neither.

2) Clarity about the rules and standards creates an objective standard to which both the applicant AND the HPRB / preservationist community can be held. Having such an external standard would, of course, reduce the "war of attrition" negotiating leverage that I described above. With clear standards, the applicant could immediately go to the Mayor's Agent and argue that they are, in fact, in compliance with the rules, cutting out multiple cost-incurring cycles of design, presentation, etc.

3) With clear standards, the job would also be a lot less fun for the HPO and HPRB. Who wants to go from controlling a project and having wide latitude in imposing one's personal preference for project to just enforcing rules. At core, that means that the values to be enforced are somebody else's, in this case a City Council, elected by the citizens of DC. It's much more fun to feel important and have people come to you as a supplicant.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? A friend of DCPW was in negotiations with the HPO when Steve Calcott said, " This just doesn't do anything for me." Apparently a key criterion for success in dealing with the HPO is that your design "does something" for Steve Calcott.

Yes, by all means bring some clarity. And perhaps do something about Steve Calcott and the rest of the high-handed HPO staff, too.

by DC Preservation Watch on Jul 30, 2012 10:41 pm • linkreport

The lack of clear standards has two reasons as I see it. First, what DC Preservation said, there is a feeling of power having things hinge on someone's personal interpretation, like Mr. Calcott. Not all are as wimsical as he though. The second reason I think is more important though. Clear rules would mean a clear philosophy towards preservation, history, and ultimatley architecture since that's what we're talking about. The fear of laying down clearer rules is that it would expose the chasm between those who think additions and infill should be unequivically "of our time" and those who think they should blend in. The "of our time" crowd promote modernist projects becasue according to them, only that one style speaks for our contemporary culture. Those who want things to blend in tend to be less ideological but even then there's this idea that the addition/infill be clearly distinguishable from an original.

While I understand that preservation is about much more than aesthetics, it would be interesting to see how this discussion plays out. While pre-modernist architects seemed to have had no problem working with and in other historical styles in order to create a greater or harmonious whole, modernist architects begin to yell "disney" and freak out over anything that mimics another period, never mind that modernism is itself a historical style. I have no problem with the glass pyramid in the Louvre approach, when it comes to a victorian home in Cleveland Park, it would be nice to have more consistency.

I've worked with several preservation people in various neighborhoods and I've found them very professional, but this arbitrariness in their outlook does have real costs economically for the client and others involved. I hope this call from David amounts to something becasue it's time we settled some of this confusion since real peoples lives (read: not rich) can be greatly affected and not for the better.

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 7:02 am • linkreport

Olympic gymnastics actually has quite objective scoring measures.

Historic preservation unnecessarily slows down progress, and not just because of lack of clarity. I've read some ridiculous stories, including on this website.

by Sam on Jul 31, 2012 9:30 am • linkreport

This story of how HBRB somehow put an unfair burden on some homeowner in Cleveland Park by not allowing him to put prominent solar panels on his house is a bit of a red herring. A little context might be useful. Lost in the press reports is that the historic preservation regs did not preclude him from nearly doubling the size of his -already large home and constructing a pool house. The homeowner got like 99% of what he wanted and now is whining about the last 1%. Nothing would have prevented him from putting in solar panels that would not be visible from the street or using various photovoltaic products that look like shingles and are allowed in the front of historic structures. Moreovcr, claiming that the HPRB staff won't allow him to be "green" is a little rich when you've basically doubled your house size and built a swimming pool.

by Al on Jul 31, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

David, I partly agree with your view of HPO recommendations to the HPRB. But you also downplay the level of consistency achieved and the challenges facing the HPO. There are two levels of analysis. One includes the basic Dept. of Interior guidelines that evaluate the gross aspects of a mass, setbacks, scale, height, etc. in the ballpark with the original structure? The second measure is where the problems begin. The design proposal should represent or at least not conflict with the characteristics of HD. Unfortunately, the HPO has not been able to develop the significant design aspects for each DC HD. Absent those clearly stated guidelines it can appear that there is no precedent and that each proposal is judged in a vacuum. In my experience as ANC commissioner with 2 HDs within borders HPO recommendations have been evolving but the reasons for the evolution are not always clear. It's very important that residents understand early and thoroughly what is compatible and what probably would not be compatible in their HD. It's one thing to grasp the basic scale and mass issues but much harder to understand what design aspects distinguish your HD from another HD and what features your house should preserve and which ones are less critical. Design is by its nature subjective, but there is more the city can do to enlighten us with the principles that will be applied to design proposals in each HD. So I agree that more emphasis should be in work plan to develop more comprehensive design guidelines.

Another very important factor that shouldn't be ignored is the superb staff advice that HPO provides to homeowners and architects on how to develop designs in HDs. While the "rules" may be lacking and in some cases lagging behind contemporary design features, the staff is talented,accessible,and experienced and seem to always improve projects.


by Nancy on Jul 31, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

For another interesting take on preservation:

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

Nancy captures the problem pretty well. Generally, what people call whim (like how the entry does) is not, it's captured in the architectural style and building practices of the period of architectural significance for a commercial district.

But yes, as Nancy points out, in most neighborhoods this information hasn't been captured in a good set of guidelines. In Capitol Hill, the CHRS publications provide a pretty good set of general points. In Mount Pleasant, the local historic association has guidelines too.

In Anacostia Conserved and LeDroit Park Conserved (both published around 1979) you have similar kinds of guidelines, which could be drawn upon for other districts with similar housing stock/architectural styles.

The Rochester Rehab manual (Landmark Society of Western New York), the guidelines published by Richmond, VA, the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual are all examples of publications that do a better job of providing objective guidance.

But I would argue that the guidance is more objective than it appears.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D captures the main schism in historic preservation right now, how the Sec. of Interior guidelines say that new construction should be decidedly different from the historic architecture that typify an area versus new construction that is compatible. Stephen Semes writes/speaks about this issue, in a way that I find most convincing, that new construction should be compatible.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

and the other point completely missed in this entry, and the point that sets up most of this conflicts, is the dichotomy between underlying zoning, which compared to the size of buildings typically constructed during the neighborhood's period of architectural significance allows much bigger buildings, and historic preservation guidelines, which are design to maintain character.

I wrote about this here:

and Topher from Georgetown Metropolitan responded to it in an entry in GGW.

And yes, MLD, including this link to something I wrote is a backhanded intimation that the original entry is faulty in terms of the arguments, resources provided, etc.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

sorry for the various typos in the previous comments. The first major error is this statement:

Generally, what people call whim (like how the entry does) is not, it's captured in the architectural style and building practices of the period of architectural significance for a commercial district.

which should read:

Generally, what people call whim (like how the entry does) is not, it's captured in the architectural style and building practices of the period of architectural significance for a historically designated district.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman
I don't have a problem with you posting stuff from your blog, I read your blog and find it interesting.

Back on topic:
I take issue with the idea that buildings should not be built just because they are different from what currently exists on the block. Take this example from your post:
New construction, 1100 block of 5th Street NE

I have friends who live directly across the street from this building so I have seen it many times over the years. It is not out-sized for the street it is on (this much is obvious even looking at it on street view), even if it is bigger that the buildings around it. It blends in better without the construction debris (see street view) and in 15 years when it has weathered a bit it will look even better.

I think we have to get away from the idea that everything we build new must be the same as the old - this seems too much like the cookie-cutter HOA suburbs. The most valued and walkable neighborhoods in the city are not homogeneous - neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan have rowhouses and larger apartment buildings (old and newer) mixed together. That's what it will take to build a more dense city that is also aesthetically pleasing.

by MLD on Jul 31, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

I don't think that "everything we build new must be the same as the old" rather in most cases it should be smpathetic to it's surroundings, assuming those surroundings are pleasing. In this interesting article on the re-building of a 1930's suburb of Paris( the author makes an interesting observation about different approaches between architects. "Modernist architects design their buildings as icons, meant to draw attention to themselves, like the grand arch at La Defense. Neo-traditional architects do the much more important work of designing lively and attractive public places."

Every town and neighborhood will have sites where standing out is not only good, but desirable, given the location. But like any good piece of music or fiction, the whole work becomes stiffling and innane when every building is striving for attention. One issue is massing and another is aesthetics. Like the example you pointed to, the new buildings are larger but not incompatible with the old. In fact the varying cornice heights will make for a more interesting skyline, but the building's style is compatible with the neighbors (from what I can tell). Being different does't have to mean being hostile.

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

MLD, I am not sure how I feel about that building. But it is substantially larger than the buildings on that side of the street, and even the three story buildings on the other side, that aren't pictured.

It's also much larger in terms of the rear yard.

But mostly I am concerned not about this building, which fits architecturally even if not in terms of scale, but infill construction over the last 10-15 years on the same side of the street, but closer to M, and a building on the 400 block of M St. NE--I can't find a photo of it, I am sure I had one, but I'll take one the next time I'm over.

Similarly, this building on the 500 block of M St. NE is significantly out of scale even though it is reasonable in terms of architectural style.

The same guy built something similar, really large, out of scale on Rhode Island Ave., east of South Dakota.

These are cases of capitalizing on the exchange value of the use value of place. These places are popular and valuable because of the historic building stock, its qualities, scale, and placemaking value, but the developers who build these things don't care at all about that, just maximizing their ability to benefit from it, and they do so by constructing buildings that diminish the quality of place in significant ways.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

MLD -- two things. I said "rear yard" when I didn't finish the thought and meant use of the rear of the lot for much more house than was typical during the period of architectural significance for the neighborhood.

2. In your original statement, I didn't take what you wrote as negative in terms of my "self-promotion", I just took the opportunity to joke about it.

But I really do resent that people call my frequent citation of what I have written as "self-promotion" because I only list the links when the articles are not very good and particular incomplete. But they can't figure that out I guess.

While I am not of the school of "if you have nothing nice to say don't say anything", I don't really want to take the opportunity to go through a point by point evisceration/repudiation.

When things are really bad, I do then construct an evisceration, but as an entry in my own blog, e.g.,

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

"Modernist architects design their buildings as icons, meant to draw attention to themselves, like the grand arch at La Defense. Neo-traditional architects do the much more important work of designing lively and attractive public places."

if an architect builds an unassuming, non-iconic building that creates an attractive public space, but does so with no use of ornament, are they modernist architects?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 31, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Good point Walker, you'd have to ask the author of that line for your answer though. My point was that modernists tend to see their work in isolation to it's context, something that's hard to do in cities. Maybe that's why many of the modernists who executed the Urban renewal of the 1950's and 60's tore down whole neighborhoods instead of trying to work with what's there.

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport

I suspect that had more to do with the directives of policy makers, who believed that light and air (and parking) were more important than eyes on ground, and other advantages of the older style. It may also have been cheaper. Certainly few of the buildings they put up were iconic. most were unassuming and also failed to create attractive public places. Whereas the more iconic modernist buildings were often built as part of an urban fabric, which they sometimes aggressively disrespected, and sometimes not so much.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 31, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

I think if you're going to pick and choose examples like "quaint neo-traditionalist development" and "La Defense" to make the point that modernism is incapable of anything non-iconic, that's not fair. Those buildings and the whole plaza are specifically built to be iconic. Likewise there are many "neo-traditional" buildings that are iconic as well - didn't THE neo-traditionalist guy design this ( I can think of plenty of modernist buildings that are not trying to be deliberately in-your-face, like these on Harvard St NW ( Sometimes I feel like a lot of the arguments really boil down to the fact that people just don't like modernist stuff, but they try to couch it like that planetzien article as 'modernism is incapable of anything but steel and glass towers in the park/concrete.'

@Richard Layman
Personally, I think your first example looks like crap because it's a partially-finished building. The finished result looks pretty good to me ( It's set back quite well with the other buildings and has projected window bays similar to the rowhouses across the street a bit to the west. Though I would have suggested they buy and get rid of the old west jailhouse-cum-church next door while they were at it.

The example from RI Ave NE is truly ugly but personally I think that's due less to the size/height and more to the fact that it's just a flat front (mcmansion-style) with no variation/ornamentation whatsoever.

by MLD on Jul 31, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

btw, I have in mind in some develpments in Bolton Hill in baltimore.

bolton square I believe has been designated a (modernist) historic district on its own, and is adjacent to historic (19th c) Bolton Hill.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 31, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

You and Walker are right about the over simplification of that quote I used off course. It's my usual point that if you want humane architecture (of any style), you'd do well by teaching architects and planners from examples that have succeded in the past, again, regardless of style and era. This would entail a fundamental re-conceptualizing of what architecture is, which goes to the point of what the OHP will need to do if it's to clarify their standards towards historic architecture.

BTW, you're right about "the fact that people just don't like modernist stuff", even though it's a generalization.

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D. Art Deco is "modern". Lots of people like it. It illustrates your general point about context specific architecture vs. architecture that ignores context (and place-urban design factors).

It's why in my list of the elements of DC's competitive advantage that I figured out you have to separate out "urban design/spatial pattern" from historic architecture, and history-identity-authenticity.

@MLD -- u r right that there is a difference between large and bad. These buildings in the examples are pretty large, not necessarily bad. And yes I wish back in the 1890s-1920s when most of the H St. neighborhood was built, that larger buildings were constructed more generally.

Similarly with regard to "modernism" it can be bad in design (brutal, banal, etc.), it can be bad in context, or just new.

Now I am better about distinguishing between the three and can tolerate more modernism, especially when it is contextual/relates to the site and area.

Getting back to Art Deco, it was usually constructed of a size and design that was context sensitive and fit in with walking-transit city design principles.

I guess the biggest problem with modernism for city folk is that for the most part it is designed for the automobile city and not to be attractive, empathetic or sympathetic to the pedestrian.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 5:00 pm • linkreport

Generally I like the European approach where modern, often glass, modern buildings are compatible with any other style while not being totally bland themselves. I think that architecture as an art needs to be nurtured and promoted rather than dulled down.

I totally hate imitation architecture, it's pastiche and demeans and often overpowers the original to the point where it's hard to tell what was original.

The exception may be where there's a "missing tooth" say in a row of identical rowhouses where one collapsed or burned. There I can understand restoring the row.

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 31, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

In further thinking about this entry, I am going to recant some of my sentiment and agree with David here--on the general point of the need for "clarity," but not in terms of his specific argument.

Not because I think "clarity" doesn't exist or shouldn't be a high priority, but because the reality is that even if not true, the fact that there is a perception that the HP design review process is arbitrary poses a serious threat to preservation in terms of how valuable (or not) people consider HP to be it in terms of maintaining Quality of Life/Placemaking values within the city.

David makes the point that this perception makes it difficult to add more preservation regulations to areas undesignated now--that isn't my main concern, because I have already pretty much given up on that. Other aspects of the process, combined with the inability to organize and to articulate the value of preservation in the 21st century pretty much dooms any new effort to create a historic district, especially in the face of ever present property rights concerns.

But this does get back to the conundrum that absolutely bugs the s*** out of me (what made me a preservationist), the fact that preservation saved the city, that what makes the city potentially a great place to live (architecture, identity, walking city era urban design) and viable neighborhoods, during the almost 50 year period when residential living trends did not favor choosing the center city.

Instead, people harp on preservation being arbitrary and capricious when what they should be doing is praising HP to high heavens because it stabilized and preserved so many potentially or once great DC neighborhoods (that with the addition of transit and some more density) that are now ready to be lived in by people who want to live in cities, ready to be "repurposed" for the 21st century.

(I discussed this general process in a somewhat different context in this blog entry,

So if people like David Alpert (and Lydia DePillis) aren't convinced that HP isn't clear, then we have a big problem, since he is intelligent, reads lots of documents, goes to hearings, talks to people etc.

If he isn't convinced, how does that compare to the people who just complain without doing any additional research?

Now I mentioned above some HP design publications from other cities that I like a lot, that I wish were used as models to shape how DC interprets and promotes preservation.

Another document I like is the comparable guide for Montgomery County, for two reasons in addition to the general info on historic preservation and architecture: (1) it has a general history chapter, which puts history and architectural history in context; and (2) history-design writeups for each designated neighborhood.

Again, we pretty much don't have this kind of straightforward info in the city. Sure we have the historic district brochures, but maybe in the Internet/millenial/mobile generation, those brochures are too long and text heavy and aren't getting the message across.

Now, I don't think that clarity is the issue per se, I think that people don't know much about architecture, design, and history and because they don't understand, they ascribe the failure of design review process to yield what they want as arbitrary. (sorta like my line that people call "culture" something that is in fact the result of a process, just one that people don't understand).

That needs to be addressed. Not just by telling people (as I am wont to do) that it's just because they haven't read X, Y, and Z, but by producing the kinds of documents, materials, and campaigns that are necessary to correct the misperceptions, and to address the problems (and there are some, undoubtedly) that do actually exist in the process.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 5:31 pm • linkreport

Readers of this thread should be aware that, years ago, the DC Council agreed with the position of the staff and board at that time that cases establishing historic districts, cases landmarking individual properties, and cases involving permits at a specific property should all be treated as "legislative" cases (involving policy) instead of "contested" cases (where findings of fact are required and a logic to defend positions). Legislative case decisions may be appealed, but only to the Superior Court, which examines facts and other things; contested cases go directly to the DC Court of Appeals, which sees if rules were followed but does not typically examine the facts as "found" in the Order being appealed when found in evidence under review.

The Council could change this and, in my view, should. This is not about Steve Callcott or other staff in that component of the Office of Planning. He is well versed in historic preservation and architectural history as are the others, but few as much as he. Rather, the issue and potential solution is about the process and what should take place that doesn't, but could. Council?

by Lindsley Williams on Jul 31, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

Lindsley, you are a lawyer (and a real estate lawyer to boot and should identify your affiliations when you write stuff like this) and I am not, but my understanding is that the changes to the historic preservation law in 2005/2006 actually switched it to a much more adversarial process. I wouldn't be able to argue the point legalistically.

I don't see why you think the way you lay out is superior.

Although there is no question that "facts" should dictate the process. I argue that they do (because decisions are made in terms of the architectural style and dictates of a building's/designated districts era of architectural significance).

The people who disagree typically take the perspective that aesthetic choices are relative and a matter of opinion, rather than considering the question from the standpoint of architectural historical consideration.

This is why I disagree with statements by people like David that the process is basically arbitrary. It's not, it's actually pretty consistent, if you consider the fact that decisions are made in terms of the architectural style and dictates of a building's/designated districts era of architectural significance.

I guess there is the issue of Sec. of Interior guidelines on new construction vs. the Semes argument (and of course he is not the only one) that new construction should be context sensitive.

And then the tougher things, when it comes down to materials like solar panels, when the reality is that practice isn't settled yet, and the HPRB has to take heat for making hard decisions.

And on the point of additions, height etc. at tough decision locations like intersections.

E.g., I don't see any problem with a 6 story building at Capitol Hill's 100% intersection (8th St. and Pennsylvania Avenue SE). Makes total sense, it's a node, a gateway, a key point where larger buildings are warranted. Obviously, other people think that anything larger than the residential buildings is anathema.

OTOH, there was that building issue that David A. wrote about a year or more ago, some building on a corner, in the Dupont Circle Historic District. I don't know too much about it.

Or the Heritage Foundation building issue. My objections to the new addition on the 200 PA Ave. SE block were twofold: (1) the Second Empire style addition, while accurate to the period of the original construction, was not a style employed on that blokck and (2) that block is particularly distinctive and has more than average significance in terms of the Capitol Hill Historic District generally, PA Ave. specifically, and the commercial district specifically.

In any case, tough issues.

by Richard Layman on Jul 31, 2012 6:37 pm • linkreport

1. In all honesty. D. Alpert is not the best judge of whether the existing rules provide clarity. A developer -- or homeowner -- is the best judge. And I do agree the Cleveland Park case which triggered this is a, bit, well, different.

2. That being said, I understand the rheotrical point, which is a Dave Alpert can't understand this, could Joe Average homeowner. Joe Average in DC is a laywer, married to another laywer, and is probably pretty sophicated. I'd rather see how HP is preventing a larger urban goal other than clarity, and I doubt there is evidence for that.

3. I must have missed Mr. Williams point on review; because the way I read it he wants HP decisions as "contested" and with appeal to the Court of Appeals but no review on underlying fact, just application of the law/standards?

by charlie on Jul 31, 2012 8:31 pm • linkreport

Matters of size and scale shouldn't be a problem to clarify, but you'll always have issues with style as opinions will always vary concerning aesthetics. I might like harmony with context, but the next guy might want a strong contrast, especially if the original composition is "complete" and would be spoiled with an addition. Maybe the best way to address this issue is to have different levels of compatability depending on historical significance. If it's the setting of a historical moment beyond being old buildings, then additions and infill should be made to blend in aesthetically, to preserve the feel of that period like what Violette Le Duc called for. Most other contexts could be more flexible and allow for either a contrasty approach or a blending approach. With-in that frame work I think one has to live with some level of arbitraryness which in the end might not be the worst thing in the world.

by Thayer-D on Jul 31, 2012 9:10 pm • linkreport

I assume these factors also apply to the Georgetown Historic District which has it's own independent historic board?

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 31, 2012 9:11 pm • linkreport

excuse me, seems Georgetown has Fine Arts Commission review:

Maybe Georgetown's onto something.

by Tom Coumaris on Jul 31, 2012 9:16 pm • linkreport

This is one big urban planning circle jerk and you're all missing the point. What people need is to be able to get post card permits for things that will be approved anyway like alley fences and interior work instead of wasting time with a lecture and a rubber stamp at the permit office. They also need to know what window characteristics are definitely going to get approved if they decide they can't stand their drafty windows anymore.

There should also be a postcard permit for selecting historic mortar in one of the 3-4 historic colors available at Fragers.

Also, once you approve something in any given neighborhood it should be an automatic approval if you maIntain the same materials and form. They're row houses; there's not that much significant variation. Actually HPO will lose any lawsuits where theyre denying approval to the second person to do something, they just font know it yet.

Just catalog what's been approved so far and lets get on with more important issues.

by Name on Jul 31, 2012 10:53 pm • linkreport


The problem with this is that much of a "test" for an application is the subject's impact as seen from public space. A corner house has a lot more visibility than an interior house. A house set high on a hill has a different view impact than one at street level.

As a result, you cannot simply say "if one house has it, then all houses should have it."

by William on Aug 1, 2012 6:59 am • linkreport

Name's got a great idea. Peal off a lot of the "maintenance" permits and you'll free up a lot of people's time. Especially concerning windows, which I still don't see the need to force people into million dollar windows when they are so easily replaced.

As for the larger additions and infill, it's always going to require some level of attention, becasue we've already said (as a community) that these places and buildings are special. It's like the flat tax argument, it sounds appealing in concept, but some issues simply defy simplicity.

by Thayer-D on Aug 1, 2012 7:58 am • linkreport

Name/William/Thayer-D: while they don't have postcard permits, and they probably shouldn't because the likelihood of f*ing up is much higher (e.g., in Aspen's historic district, contractors have to do an online "test" to be certified to work there), the reality is that much of this is captured in the counter (desk) approval process, which is where most permit applications are 100% handled. I don't know the exact percentage, but it's extremely high.

The really tough questions and new projects go to HPO staff and then HPRB.

That being said, the ideas expressed in Name's comment, better info for homeowners (something I've advocated for years) including an annual historic building expo (comparable say to the Historic Bungalow Expo in Chicago) plus other changes, such as EVENING HOURS AT LEAST ONCE/WEEK to accommodate home owners who can't take time from work, need to be considered as the basis for a re-jiggering of how things are done to make the process/appear to be less onerous.

The reason I am pretty hard core about preservation is because mostly in my experience, people do really bad things (shorten window heights, rip off porches, replace stone walls with concrete block, inferior window and door replacements, bad tuckpointing/mortar usage, vinyl siding to cover up masonry, or for new additions on brick houses, etc.).

Oh and Tom C. -- the reason that Georgetown has separate regulations is because it was created as a historic district by a Congressional law passed in 1950. This predates the National Historic Preservation Act by 16 years.

Having not been much involved in Georgetown stuff at all, I haven't paid much attention to the Old Georgetown Board and how it works. It would be interesting to determine if its procedures are significantly different/better than HPO/HPRB and then capture and implement the learning.

by Richard Layman on Aug 1, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

The Georgetown Historic District was almost single-handily achieved by my neighbor Harriet Hubbard who also was involved in stopping the 66/95 interchange which would have leveled Dupont/Logan.

I think that having the Commission on Fine Arts review at least larger projects is a good idea. No one is going to claim they don't know art and architecture. The HPRB is politically appointed and those that appoint are usually beholden financially to large developers, so HPRB is meek. That's why we get so many facadeimies.

And builders do get two shots at review since they can appeal to the Mayor's Agent and if unsuccessful they then are allowed to appeal to the DC Court of Appeal. Preservationists aren't allowed any appeal if they lose that I know of.

by Tom Coumaris on Aug 1, 2012 11:17 am • linkreport

If you don't think the CFA is politically appointed, you are sorely mistaken. And the problem is that they are politically appointed wrt DC's place as the federal city, so they are pretty disconnected from being too concerned about the local.

That's why we have that piece of s*** architecturally Station Place development. J. Carter Brown wanted a glass building. Kevin Roche was his friend, a former member of the CFA.

It was greased.

Nonetheless, I wrote a piece on New Year's Day and among the point about the Post needing to cover more "local" news mentioned how CFA doesn't get much coverage by local media in terms of how it works.


I don't know anything about Harriet Tubbard, but if you look at the creation of historic districts from the 1920s to the very early 1960s in Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, Georgetown/DC, Brooklyn, the process was pretty comparable-similar.

by Richard Layman on Aug 1, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport


Actually, preservationists can appeal to the DC Court of Appeals. Here, for example, is the opinion by that court on the Capitol Hill Restoration Society's suit against The Heritage Foundation.

I am not sure if preservationists can appeal an HPRB ruling in favor of a developer to the Mayor's Agent.

by Paxton Helms on Aug 1, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

There is no reason that a homeowner needs HP approval for interior projects. You can obtain postcard permits for tons of work in DC --as long as you're not in the HIstoric district.

HP review in thid situation is nothing but a rubber stamp but it costs a homeowner at least a half work day. Most homeowners are doing projects serially because they are not capable of handling large projects. That's a lot of permit trips.

Regarding historic reprinting: you're kidding yourselves. There is nothing in "obtaining a permit" that guarantees the work is done to historic standards. In fact, the permitting process ensures the compliance level is suboptimal which means that many homeowners don't even know what the proper materials or color schemes are.

Regarding end vs middle units: get a brain. Obviously you can have separate categories of standards for end vs middle units.

by Name on Aug 1, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

"Facademies" are an admission that we can't do any better. Before the advent of modernism, they never saved a facade becasue it was generally understood that the newer building would be as attractive or more than the building being replaced. Another reason is actually related to something you said earlier.

"I totally hate imitation architecture, it's pastiche and demeans and often overpowers the original to the point where it's hard to tell what was original."

Do you think an architect building a Neo-Federal rowhouse in Georgetown back in 1910 would ever have thought that?
First of all, you are entitled to hate any building you (don't) like, but inspiration is not imitation. Are all the Richardsonian Romanesque buildngs in DC an immitation of the few houses Henry Hobson Richardson built here in the 1880's? By that standard, isn't every mid-century modern office block an immitation of the 1950's boxes? Do the two large additions to the Capitol building demean and overpower the original?

These questions, while clearly rehtorical, are meant to counter this irrational and unfounded bias that when an architect works in a traditionalist style, it's a phony pastiche, and when they work in a modernist style, it's of our time. Say's who? I would recommend you look back in history to see exactly how architects have always worked, and I think you'll find that somethings never change, even if a style comes and goes. If we're looking for consistency, let's start with that one.

by Thayer-D on Aug 1, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

" Before the advent of modernism, they never saved a facade becasue it was generally understood that the newer building would be as attractive or more than the building being replaced"

havent we been over this "modernism created preservation"meme enough times before. Preservation of the 20th century type is a luxury product, and one driven by a sense of rootlessness due to industrialization and urbanization. Its paralleled by neofolk music and other drives for authenticity.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 1, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

Name -- I didn't realize that about interior permits. It's an easy fix that should be done. If it's interior, a standard DCRA triggered permit shouldn't require HPO sign off, I guess at least at some percentage trigger wrt interior demolition that can have structural implications. (E.g., the buildings that fall in.)

These are the kinds of things that could be addressed in an process review and redesign exercise, which ought to include a review of DCRA, and examination of best practices elsewhere and benchmarking too.

SPeaking of benchmarking, about 17 years ago, I know I discussed with a Post reporter writing about WASA (there was a 7+ month line break on K Street NE) and I asked her why didn't the Post ever do comparative reviews when they wrote about government agency functioning...

by Richard Layman on Aug 1, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

To my knowledge, interior work does not require HPO sign-off unless the interior of the structure is part of the designation. There are very few of those in the District.

by William on Aug 1, 2012 2:14 pm • linkreport

All permitting which occurs at the permitting office when you have a HP address makes you pass through the HPO gate even if it is outside of the scope of HP influence.

The mere existance of a historic district address (not the scope of work) is what requires you to go to the permit office even if the have no say.

That's some 1950s style Eastern European bureaucracy.

by Name on Aug 1, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

"havent we been over this "modernism created preservation"meme enough times before. "

Haven't we been over this "car ruined the city" meme enough times before? I've always found that to fully understand a problem, it's good to look at every angle regardless of where the light shines.

"Preservation of the 20th century type is a luxury product, and one driven by a sense of rootlessness due to industrialization and urbanization."

Or it could be a product of having a huge swath of your city disapear to be replaced with either a parking lot of something few Americans would voluntarily move into. Provide parking to the suburban population while wharehousing poor people and call it "Urban Renewal"...really? Industrialization and urbanization has been with us for 200+ years now, but the modern preservation movement grew out of the 1960's, not the 1860's.

If the goal is clarity, I'd like to hear the OHP outline a their view on architecture, history, and their roll in both our culture and the modern preservation movement. At least I might better understand why some architects can land a glass cube in Cleveland Park while others get panned for blending in too well. (Interesting to note that in Georgetown, the exact opposite thing happened with the Apple Store controversy)

Some of the greatest urban spaces and buildings have been a result of blending in, like the Fiorentine Piazza where Brunalleschi's Hospitale Degli Innocenti was built in the early 1400's. One might get the impression he's responsible for the whole unified look of the piazza, but the other two facades (minus the church) where done in two subsequent 100-year intervals.

I wonder if this "immitation" elicit "hatred" from the hundreds of Architecture students who visit there every year? My guess is many of them would come to realize that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Sometimes, beauty is a more compelling argument for design than social commentary. It's a good thing the Italians indulged themselves with the "luxury" of preservation, or else young architects might not be able to learn these valuble lessons.

by Thayer-D on Aug 1, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

"Or it could be a product of having a huge swath of your city disapear to be replaced with either a parking lot of something few Americans would voluntarily move into."

that possible, but would not account for the other aspects of the 20th century search for authenticity - from folk music and focus on folkways, to antique collecting, to language revivals, to the natural and heirloom food movements, historical reenactment as hobby, etc. There is a lot of that that was happening at the same time the building preservation movement was getting going. I dont think those other things are explicable by revulsion at Bauhaus design, and I lean toward economy of explanation. I think in this case the bauhaus being followed by historica preservation is just a spurious correlation. Repeat it, but I dont beleive it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 1, 2012 4:40 pm • linkreport

" Industrialization and urbanization has been with us for 200+ years now, but the modern preservation movement grew out of the 1960's, not the 1860's."

I would say it began somewhat earlier, with Colonial williamsburg, the restoration of first Greenwich village then Brooklyn heights and Georgetown, etc. Before the battle over Grand Central. And I think the sense of rootlessness was far greater by the mid 20th century than the 1860s - the US was not majority urban till 1920, mass marketing and advertising didnt become dominant till the 20s, there was still a lot of artisan production in the 1860s, etc. Urban areas in the US still had stronger rural roots (in both domestic and international migration) in the 19th century, transport and communications were still slower and more constraining, etc.

Why do we get something like Ginsburg's Howl postwar, and not in the 1870s? the entire corpus of reaction to consumer society?

by AWallkerInTheCity on Aug 1, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

well, fwiw, the historic district movement started in Charleston in the early 1920s, and was sparked in part by a response to the incursion of gasoline service stations. And the movement in NYC was a multidecade effort (_Preserving New York_).

There are some good histories on the movement, some from the cultural studies perspective (e.g. the history of APVA, _Preserving the Old Dominion_ and _History of Urban Places_) and are very direct about the selective choosing of history to acknowledge as a way to create an acceptable narrative about culture, society, the upper class. (I haven't read about the history of the movement in Charleston, and I should.)

Yesterday I was reading the article in the NYT Sunday Magazine about the Aleppo codex, and the discussion of how Israel has focused on archeology in part as a way to define and shape the historical narrative of Jewish history, Mideast history, etc. and it's the same kind of imperative.

I have a post on this wrt the Kennedy Theater and I discuss what I call the nexus of architecture, place, and history (people) and how a lot of people have a hard time comprehending neighborhood preservation (discussed in the Hamer book cited above) vs. understanding and accepting the preservation of buildings and sites associated with "great people" and events.


by Richard Layman on Aug 1, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

@ Walker,
There have always been periods where society clamored for authenticity. Why do you think the whole arts and crafts movement arose? And whether one's looking for authenticity or revolution, people (outside of academia) will still judge those buildings sensually and not conceptually.

Modernism tends to shine when the building sits in isolation, like Gehry's Bilbao which works not becasue "it is of our time" but becasue it's beautiful and well placed. How do you build an urban "tower in the park"? Create the park by flattening the existing context. Where do these ideas come from? Modernism. Broadly speaking, why did historic preservation move from saving individual colonial buildings to whole neighborhoods in the 1960's? Becasue urban renewal was about scraping whole neighborhoods.

BTW the natural food movement had a lot more to do with wanting to eat chemically free food versus a search for authenticity.

by Thayer-D on Aug 1, 2012 10:36 pm • linkreport

@Thayer D: Modernism tends to shine when the building sits in isolation, like Gehry's Bilbao which works not becasue "it is of our time" but becasue it's beautiful and well placed. How do you build an urban "tower in the park"? Create the park by flattening the existing context.

Well then, how do you explain the Stata Center? This is in the thick of urban Cambridge, and imho works very well. And I was completely flabbergasted when I first saw it from the Vassar Street -- I couldn't believe my eyes what lay before me.

by goldfish on Aug 1, 2012 11:29 pm • linkreport

I didn't say modernism never works in a tight urban context, only that it's best examples tend to be set in open space IMHO. Modernism is usually more sculptural than traditional urban buildings which have one "public' facade and a rear that's significantly less articulated. I personally love the Newseum Building even though modernists like Roger Lewis think it's too busy.

The Stata Center looks like a psychodelic Las Vegas Hotel! Pretty cool, but it needs no explination. None of these ideas are set in stone since personal opinion plays to large a role in aesthetics to ever be able to codify aesthetics.

by Thayer-D on Aug 2, 2012 7:48 am • linkreport

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