Greater Greater Washington

Preservation


To save this old house, everything but the facade must go

An old house in Anacostia is beyond repair, but zoning law ensures that at least the front facade will remain to give a historic appearance to a new replacement home.


All that remains of an 1889 home in Anacostia. Photo by the author.

In June 1889, construction began on a two-story frame home at 1621 W Street SE, then Jefferson Street, in Anacostia, a block and a half from Frederick Douglass' estate. 125 years later, DC issued a permit for the home's demolition. It's located just outside the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District. All that now remains of the home is the free-standing facade.

"You can't just go there and demolish everything," said the inspection agent of record. "You have to keep the front up by law and by zoning or you lose the right to develop." According to the agent, the home was in such a condition of neglect that "everything has to be replaced."

According to city tax records, the current owner purchased the property in early 2005 for less than $82,000. It's currently assessed at just over $150,000. The rebuilt home's potential sale will serve as an economic barometer of East of the River property values for real estate watchers. But preservationists are closely watching how the reconstruction will happen.


The facade of 1621 W Street SE. Photo by the author.

"The best outcome will be for the developer to preserve the facade of the house and rebuild it in a way that compliments the historic character of the surrounding neighborhood," wrote Charles Wilson, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association and member of the Historic Preservation Review Board, in an email.

Wilson argued that preserving structures like this is the key to revitalizing Historic Anacostia, as it lends the area a unique character that can't be found elsewhere. "When it comes to economic development in Anacostia we need to look at it from a short- and long-term perspective," he adds. "Short-term is what it going to get us there and long-term is what is going to keep us there. Historic preservation is the long-term answer for economic development in Anacostia."

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

Comments

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Love the historic vinyl siding and stock Home Depot front door.

by spookiness on Jan 31, 2014 10:47 am • linkreport

Not sure it is worth saving, but then I see what developers build when they have no constraints and am happy this house will at least be more interesting and slightly less ugly than average state of the art.

by Richard on Jan 31, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

I'm sure it's NOT worth saving. It's a shame the money being wasted to attempt to preserve this boring facade, and appalling that these historic preservation people have the authority to force this on the property owner. The owners should be able to build whatever they want.

by Doug on Jan 31, 2014 10:59 am • linkreport

How absurd. Just tear the thing down.

by drk on Jan 31, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport

Snarky comments it's aside, I always find it amusing that my fellow Americans consider anything more than about 50 years old automatically historic. Meanwhile the rest of the world walks past buildings that are several hundred years old without batting an eye.

by BTA on Jan 31, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

Snarky comments it's aside, I always find it amusing that my fellow Americans consider anything more than about 50 years old automatically historic. Meanwhile the rest of the world walks past buildings that are several hundred years old without batting an eye.

China is routinely raising things 500-1000 years old and then rebuilding a Micky Mouse theme park version of them in their place. Why cant we be more like them?

by Richard on Jan 31, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

If I'm understanding this correctly, the DC government believes that this facade is so important that it's better for that lot to be vacant, than for any building to be built there that doesn't preserve the facade. I'm sorry, that just makes no sense to me.

by Sandy K on Jan 31, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

Well... this, again:

https://twitter.com/thisisbossi/status/418495533192601600

by Bossi on Jan 31, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

Dear preservationists,

This is why people loathe you.

Love,

People Who Don't Think That The Penn Station Debacle Means We Need To Preserve Every Crappy House Ever Built

by Tom Veil on Jan 31, 2014 11:45 am • linkreport

It would be worthwhile to know why this facade must be preserved. It is possible it is because the builder needs to keep the existing footprint intact so that he can rebuild on that footprint. Older homes tend to be located on their lots in ways that would be prohibited under the newer zoning rules, and the only way to keep the same coverage is to keep up a wall or two.

For example, we had to keep a wall that had a 5 foot distance from the side of our property because if it came down we could only rebuild within 8 feet of the side. Dunno if that is the case here.

by fongfong on Jan 31, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Right, because if we don't save this 100-year-old non-descript, barely qualifies as a house anymore, we are basically China.

by BTA on Jan 31, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

An old house in Anacostia is beyond repair, but zoning law ensures that at least the front facade will remain to give a historic appearance to a new replacement home.

This is a little misleading. Nothing requires that the front facade be preserved. When the current zoning code was enacted in 1958 existing buildings were grandfathered. Buildings built before 1958 can be modified under the standards of the pre-1958 code, new buildings have to follow the current code. The pre-1958 code was much more generous in terms of the size of building that could be built on a lot.

So the question soon arises, where do you draw the line between a new house and a modification to an existing house? The answer is one wall has to remain. Doesn't have to be the front wall, it can be any wall. And the appearance doesn't have to be preserved.

Interestingly, once the addition is finished it becomes considered pre-1958. At that time the actual pre-1958 portion of the house can be legally removed. There is a house in my neighborhood that started as a rear addition to a pre-1958 house. Once the addition was finished, the original house was torn down and a new front addition was put onto the rear addition. Voila! Completely new 55-year-old house.

There was also an interesting case recently where the one preserved wall collapsed during construction. I think the lawyers are still working on that one.

by contrarian on Jan 31, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

Anyway we dont have to raze it, it's already fallen down. You would think if people actually thought these buildings were worth saving they wouldnt wait until it only had one wall left.

by BTA on Jan 31, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

So, this is a zoning issue, not a preservation issue. It would be nice if that were made clear in the blog.

by William on Jan 31, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

You see this a lot: the reason is usually nothing to do with aesthetics. Two main reasons
1. Tax: keeping the front allows to consider this "repairing" as distinct from rebuilding, which are taxed differently. e.g. the cost of tearing down the house for a rebuild cannot be deducted, but if you are "repairing" then it can be deducted, if I remember my tax law from years ago.
2. Zoning: I don't know if this applies in DC, but you can face bigger and different problems with tearing down and rebuilding vs rehabbing, even if the only thing remaining is the facade.

by SJE on Jan 31, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

"Wilson argued that preserving structures like this is the key to revitalizing Historic Anacostia, as it lends the area a unique character that can't be found elsewhere."

I tend to agree with the above statement, but there's nothing historic about this facade except maybe the columns and stud walls. If this where a facade on an urban block, you would never know the innards where razed, but this looks like a cheap mardi gras mask. This is exactly what gives historic preservation a bad name. Too bad, becasue it's a worthy cause.

by Thayer-D on Jan 31, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

They have to post a "no parking" zone in front of the house. To be faithful to the appearance when it was constructed.

by Crickey7 on Jan 31, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

They have to post a "no parking" zone in front of the house. To be faithful to the appearance when it was constructed.

The spot a john stays, it's historic.

by Richard on Jan 31, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

People Who Don't Think That The Penn Station Debacle Means We Need To Preserve Every Crappy House Ever Built
Urban renewal and urban freeways can be added to debacles as well.
____

While I may think this is a bit much, it's not up to me.

by Bob See on Jan 31, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

You guys are rich.

by anon5 on Jan 31, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

@ Ton Veil:Dear preservationists,

This is why people loathe you.

Exactly. And if it's someone else who wants to feel responsible, take some of the loathing as well.

This is just a results of a silly patchwork of who-knows-what-intentioned inconsistent laws. Well done City Council.

by Jasper on Jan 31, 2014 7:28 pm • linkreport

This is a sloppy article followed up by a bunch of people that hate what they don't understand (or don't understand what they hate). This is just a mess that feeds ignorance. Thanks to Contrarian to trying to fix it.

But to strip it down even more: not a historic district, not a historic building, remnant kept by choice by private developer, taking advantage of a zoning rule/loophole so he can have a bigger building than if he razed it completely.

That whole "inspection agent of record" quote is just flat out looney tunes.

by crin on Jan 31, 2014 10:25 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the kind word crin.

That whole "inspection agent of record" quote is just flat out looney tunes.

I think it might just be out of context and a little misunderstood. Here's what he said:
"You can't just go there and demolish everything," said the inspection agent of record. "You have to keep the front up by law and by zoning or you lose the right to develop."

If the lot is non-conforming under current zoning -- ie, the dimensions are such that there's no way it can meet the requirements for setbacks -- then what he's saying is basically true: if you demolish the building you have an unbuildable lot, if you leave one wall up you can build a new house.

But the key point remains: it's not historic preservation, it's zoning.

by contrarian on Jan 31, 2014 11:12 pm • linkreport

This is just a results of a silly patchwork of who-knows-what-intentioned inconsistent laws.
I would suggest changing them to make them conform to your personal standards.

by Bob See on Feb 1, 2014 1:05 am • linkreport

In making this comment, I have no "facts" about the structure or the lot.

It is possible, even likely, that the lot does not meet current zoning requirements as to area or frontage (minimum width). That can affect redevelopment rights if the existing structure is "razed" (totally removed, typically including foundation).

As to the structure, it may or may not have failed to meet zoning standards that came in 1920, when DC's first zoning code was adopted, or the so-called "current" zoning code that supplanted the 1920 code in 1958 (and its many later amendments). The "current" code has requirements about overall lot occupancy (not to exceed X percent), height limits (not an issue here), and minimum rear and side yard standards.

If a non-conforming structure or building is razed, then any replacement must meet all now-prevailing zoning standards. But, if some portion of the structure/building remains because the demolition leaves something of the pre-existing, then the renovation can typically be developed to the extent of the prior one.

Here, the front was left standing -- so the building was not "razed."

Absent facts about this lot (area, width) and its pre-existing building's metrics as compared to the current standards, the choices that confronted the owner are not totally clear.

That said, the comments that disparage the Council's inconsistencies are at least partially off-target. The Council enacted codes for historic preservation and overall life-safety and permitting (building codes); the Zoning Commission performs that function for zoning codes.

And, on the question of lot metrics, the "zoning rewrite" now underway contemplates "grandfathering" of all pre-existing lots in Residence districts so that development could take place on smaller/narrower lots than is now the case (the dwellings would have to meet setback and other requirements nevertheless). This review of zoning is now underway and could become effective in time.

by Lindsley Williams on Feb 2, 2014 7:14 am • linkreport

"According to city tax records, the current owner purchased the property in early 2005 for less than $82,000. It's currently assessed at just over $150,000"

Man, HGTV is right; open floor plans really do increase the value of a home!

by Kolohe on Feb 2, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

Thanks contrarian for putting this article in its proper perspective. This sort of "preservation" reminds me of how many new buildings get built on coastal barrier islands; new owners buy an old property, "remodel" by tearing down all but one room of the old building, then a year or two later replace the remaining old part of the building. In this way, they get around the restrictions on not having the entirely new building elevated to keep above all but the most extreme hurricane tidal surges.

by SteveK on Feb 2, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

The thing that most of the comment thread seems to miss is the point of difference between the preservation of landmarks and the preservation of neighborhoods.

It might come as a surprise to many followers of GGW, but it was actually historic preservation that for the most part "preserved" the value of the city during the many decades when housing choice trends didn't favor urban living.

That was through what I call vernacular neighborhood preservation, through historic districts. It's not that each building rises to the level of a landmark, but that the ensemble does.

From the standpoint of authenticity, history, charm, etc., preserving houses like this is better than not doing so. Neighborhoods with buildings more like this tend to be more highly valued and property values are higher than comparable neighborhoods not designated.

That being said, sure mid-century modern houses backing up to Rock Creek Park are going to be worth more.

These issues are different than that of maximizing the ability to take advantage of zoning rules.

cf. chapter 5, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTSDNET/Resources/Economics_of_Uniqueness.pdf

Yes, there are issues with preservation. But for the most part, it's the most economically and long term sustainable approach to urban neighborhood stabilization and improvement.

by Richard Layman on Feb 3, 2014 1:55 pm • linkreport

Thanks Richard Layman for your comment, which I agree with but would not have been able to articulate.

I have a technical question about this particular property - it lies just outside the historic district. So why is it being redeveloped to historic district standards?

by Alison on Feb 23, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

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