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Preservation


"Net zero" energy building gets the thumbs up; Graham Davidson says more nutty things about climate change

The American Geophysical Union got historic approval for a large solar array atop their Dupont Circle building. But first, Hartman-Cox Architects partner Graham Davidson suggested that stopping climate change was much less important than stopping buildings from getting taller.


Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects.

The AGU, an association of "earth and space scientists," is trying to renovate their headquarters at 20th Street and Florida Avenue, NW. AGU wants to make the building "net zero," meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes, on average.

To do that, the new building will have more efficient windows and walls, will tie into the sewers to exchange heat, and on top will sport a large solar array.

The attractive current building is part of the Dupont Circle historic district, but is "non-contributing," meaning it wasn't built at the same time as most of the historic buildings in that area and therefore gets more leeway. Still, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gets to review the design.

At last month's meeting, several board members fretted that the solar panels might be too prominent for the "delicate" building and the historic district.

In response, the architects at Hickok Cole lowered the solar array and added some semitransparent panels around the edge, so it wouldn't shade the street as much. They also made other changes to the window design, entryway, and plaza in front.

 
Previous design (left) and new design (right).

When seeing the project again on May 27, board members were impressed. Joseph Taylor said it would become "An icon on Florida Avenue." They unanimously supported the project moving forward.

Graham Davidson hopes there won't be more

One board member, architect Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox, had previously suggested a building like this might be appropriate "in some remote part of Seattle," but not in Dupont Circle.

At the most recent meeting, Davidson reiterated his opposition to having more buildings in DC follow AGU's lead. He said,

On the one hand, we have the desire to make buildings that attempt to be environmentally responsible ... but results, quite frankly, in buildings that are peculiar and certainly a big shift in aesthetics from what we're used to.

On the other hand, we have the desire to maintain the character of the city. That's what our job is, and the character of the city is unique. It's why people like to come here to visit, and what they expect to see. It's why people live here and why people live in the neighborhoods. Proposing buildings such as this, adding arrays to buildings like this, in such a manner does change the character of the neighborhood and the city.

So I was largely persuaded by the staff report [which endorsed the project] ... but I am very concerned about precedent in this case. When one person on the edge of the historic district, with a noncontributing building, builds a solar array that increases the allowable height of buildings by more than a story, we are going to have hundreds of other buildings that are proposing the same thing.

That's right—if saving the planet means buildings can get a little taller, well, that's not a tradeoff Davidson would make, anyway.

It's also somewhat unclear what he was talking about, as on the AGU renovation, the solar array will be lower than the building's current penthouse (though higher than the current cornice, the top of the building visible from the street).

He further suggested that, since other energy-saving features will have a bigger impact than the solar array, it was just "great for marketing" by letting AGU "say [it's] net zero."

Preservation must preserve our natural environment, too

Historic preservation cannot be so concerned with the architectural appearance of buildings that it loses sight of the bigger preservation challenge, that of preserving our very cities from the dangers of climate change.

If the sea level keeps rising and much of DC ends up underwater, it is not going to matter how tall buildings are or the "aesthetics" of the historic district. People are not going to live in the neighborhoods any more (and I actually don't think the aesthetics of Dupont Circle are the biggest reason people live there—it's for proximity to jobs and transit, though the aesthetics certainly matter).

Fortunately, many preservationists do agree, including the historic preservation office staff, members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, and most of the board.

Board member Andrew Aurbach and chair Gretchen Pfaehler also noted, in the meeting, that the preservation office is trying to start a project that would define clearer preservation standards around sustainability. This, Pfaehler said, would "further integrate and stregnthen the relationship between preservation and sustainability" and "make this kind of dialogue and review and approval happen very easily and smoothly."

According to Pfaehler's statements at the hearing, the proposal is waiting for action by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE). This is a good step and should move forward. If it does, it could clarify to Davidson what his priorities should be, or perhaps clarify to Mayor Bowser that the city would be better served with a different architect on the board.

Preservation


Saving the planet is a good idea, say preservation board members, but don't do it here

A scientists' organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in "some remote part of Seattle" but not Dupont Circle.


Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or "earth and space scientists." AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen's Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building "net zero," which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it's sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.


Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy "too large and overbearing" while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens' Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who's opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, "The project will reduce AGU's energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts."

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship's prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.


Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn't a "contributing building" to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called "contributing" if they were built during the main "period of significance," while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building's impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn't affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:


Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy "uniquely compatible in this location."

The report adds, "While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street."

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn't attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the "neighborhood character."

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it's okay there, but I don't think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That's far from a "remote" part of Seattle; it's close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.


The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn't even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. "I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it's a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building."

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels ("I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it," she said) but asking AGU to redesign it "to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion."

Climate change can't be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they'd been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC's 2012 sustainability plan calls to "retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards" by 2032. While that's ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can't happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

Preservation


Eckington is wrestling with whether to be a historic district

Eckington is the latest DC neighborhood to explore historic status. Residents' debate over the subject has centered on their ability to make changes to their property, like adding solar panels and build additions, and the impact such a move would have on affordability.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The effort is being led by the Eckington Civic Association (ECA), which has engaged QED Associates to establish the neighborhood's historic character and organized three "town halls," two of which were held earlier this year with the third scheduled for May 9th.

"The two things that come up are pop-ups and other projects that are not within historical keeping of the neighbourhood," said Randy Nolan, president of the civic association, when asked why they are looking at historic preservation for the neighborhood.

He is quick to note that the topic is nuanced and that the ECA has not taken an official position on historic designation, except to follow its membership's desire that the topic be explored and considered.

The ECA began the effort after neighboring Bloomingdale began looking at historic designation, with the association's board approving the study and town halls in the middle of 2015, said Nolan.

Is Eckington historic?

Eckington's built environment is diverse. Brick row homes (author's note: I own and live in one) that date back to the late 1800s make up the bulk of the housing stock while new development is rising in its southern reaches east of Eckington Place NE. Light industrial fills the blocks bordering the Metropolitan Branch Trail and those east of 4th Street NE.

McKinley Technical High School sits at the center of the neighborhood.


Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

But one would probably not characterize Eckington as all that unique on first glance. It is certainly one of DC's many beautiful older neighborhoods, but it does not stand out in the same way some of the city's better-known historic districts in Capital Hill and Georgetown do.

On the other hand, QED has established some important historical links in Eckington. It was DC's first streetcar suburb when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway line opened in 1888, said Peter Sefton, a historian with the consulting firm, at the first historic designation meeting in January.

Harry Wardman, known for building many of Washington DC's row houses, developed the majority of Eckington after 1905. Construction of the homes that now line its hilly streets was largely complete by 1925, said Sefton.

Establishing Eckington's historic significance—or where it is historically significant—is a key part of qualifying for preservation. This can include social, architectural or planning aspects of the neighbourhood, said Kim Williams from DC's Historic Preservation Office at the January meeting.

The borders of the proposed district have yet to be set. However, they would include many of the historic row homes that fill Eckington.

What does historic designation mean?

Historic designation means a neighborhood's character will be preserved in its current state, including previous modifications, and future changes will be required to keep with that historic character, said Williams.

Some examples are the adaptive reuse in the historic district along 14th Street NW. The corridor has been revitalized, with many of the old facades and buildings kept and adapted to modern uses. For example, the furniture store Room & Board at the corner of 14th and T Street is the site of a former Ford Motors showroom.


Room & Board at 14th Street and T Street NW. Image by Google Maps.

Some Eckington residents, though, are concerned over what historic designation means for any future changes they might want to make to their property. Everything from replacing a street-facing door to a backyard "bump-out" will be subject to approval by the Historic Preservation Office or, for larger projects, the Historic Preservation Review Board, said Williams.

Pop-ups, rooftop solar panels, and rooftop decks would be off the table unless they could be installed away from the street.


Pop-ups like this one on Todd Street NE, where the houses are very narrow, would not be possible in a historic district. Image by the author.

These limits bother some residents.

"[The] absolute restriction on massing changes in Eckington makes historic designation overly burdensome," said one resident on the neighborhood listserv. "We have a small, infill row home like several houses in the neighborhood that's only two bedrooms [and] 16 feet wide…. What happens when we need another bedroom for kids? Under historic designation, we are faced with having to buy a more expensive house that is already larger or leaving the neighborhood altogether."

Flexibility to make future modifications to dwellings as resident needs and wants change is a common theme in comments on historic designation.

In response to repeated questions over solar panels and property additions, Williams said there are some ways these could be possible within a historic district. For example, solar panels are likely feasible on flat roofs behind "half mansards" and backyard additions will likely work in most locations, even with Eckington's hilly topography.

Affordability

One argument against historic status is that it makes neighborhoods more expensive by restricting supply.

"Historic districts do sell," said Greta Fuller, a board member with the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society and former ANC commissioner, at the last Eckington historic designation meeting in March. "But the cost of housing in the District of Columbia is not run by historic districts, it's run by economics and that's another story."

None of the speakers representing the District government at either meeting gave a very convincing argument that historic status does not impact the affordability of a neighborhood, especially one that faces pressures from gentrification.

"It's not the historic designation itself, it's the historic character of the neighborhood" that drives gentrification, said Williams. She added that there is no direct connection between gentrification and historic districts.

However, she and other DC government representatives, point to Dupont Circle, the 14th Street NW corridor and Capitol Hill—some of the District's priciest neighborhoods—as examples of how well homes in historic districts can sell in response to a different resident question.

In addition to raising home prices, historic status could also put some basic home repairs out of the reach of lower income residents. A front door replacement would have to be within keeping with the character of the neighborhood, as would new windows or fixtures, potentially adding cost to such routine repairs.

Up to $25,000 grants are available to homeowners in historic districts to cover these costs but the District only awards 15 of these annually after a length application process, said Williams' colleague Kim Elliott at the March meeting.

The approvals process can also be arduous. While Williams says minor changes can be approved within a day, it does require visiting the Historic Preservation Office and submitting paperwork for a planned project. Such added steps for minor projects could be difficult for anyone working on an hourly basis or simply have difficulty taking time off on a weekday to get a window replacement approved.

These are serious concerns for Eckington residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for years, to weigh as they consider historic status.

The ECA does not have a fixed timeline for the historic designation process. Attendees at its June 6th meeting will vote on whether to go forward with seeking designation after which the association will have to canvass the entire neighborhood before submitting an application to Historic Designation Board.

Once in front of the board, Williams says it could be three months to a year before a hearing is held and the board votes on a potential Eckington historic district.

Public Spaces


Baltimore's World War I memorial is falling apart

Nearly 100 years after World War I, Baltimore's memorial is badly deteriorated, and going ignored. As of now, nobody has plans to fix it.


Grove of Remembrance with pavilion in background. All images from the author unless otherwise noted.

The National Service Star Legion planted the Grove of Remembrance on October 8, 1919. There was a tree for each state in the union, along with three for the US' allies and Woodrow Wilson. More trees have been planted for each subsequent war. According to the Monument City Blog, it is the oldest living memorial in the United States.

One other tree that went up as part of the original grove was for Baltimore. Once the United States entered the war in April of 1917, Maryland provided 50,000 troops. Most were from Baltimore, and they served largely in eastern France.

In 1992, Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly wrote:

Baltimoreans filled the ranks of an infantry regiment, the 313th of the 79th Division. Its Company A was mostly East Baltimoreans; Company F drew heavily from the old 10th Ward, a section south of Green Mount Cemetery. It was known as the Irish Fusileers. There were favorite companies from neighborhoods in South, Northwest and West Baltimore. Many never came home.
The Grove of Remembrance also has a stone pavilion honoring Merill Rosenfeld, a Johns Hopkins graduate who died during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The site is next to the Maryland Zoo and adjacent to the Jones Falls Trail.


Inside the Edward L. Palmer Jr designed pavilion.

The pavilion was designed by Edward L. Palmer Jr., an 1899 graduate of Johns Hopkins. Palmer was also the designer of many significant residences in Roland Park, Guilford, and Gibson Island. With his partner, William D. Lamdin they designed over 200 houses and dozens of buildings including the Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford and the twin-domed Saint Casimir Church in Canton. Using old world charm, Palmer and Lamdin are credited with building some of the most graceful and distinctive homes and buildings in Baltimore.

The Grove of Remembrance is in bad shape, and it's unclear who should fix it

At Palmer's pavilion, wood beams are rotting, rain gutters are falling over, the iron work is rusting, the benches have been destroyed, the mortar supporting the stone structure needs repointing, and the signature slate roof needs repaired. There also aren't any flags on the flag poles, which need a fresh coat of paint.

And while the tree grove itself has glorious oaks that are nearly a century old, there's quite a bit of trash scattered around the memorial site.

Fixing these problems won't cost millions of dollars, but it will mean needing some money, and a capable project leader, which isn't all that easy to come by.


Many years of neglect are taking their toll on the memorial site.

The Grove of Remembrance is in Druid Hill Park, but Baltimore's Park and Recreation Department is woefully short of money.

"There are no plans in place," said Deputy Director Bill Vondrasek recently. "We would welcome outside funds to help renovate the structure."

Friends of Druid Hill Park is an organization comprised of volunteers that are mostly engaged with programming events, so capital project fundraising is probably beyond their current scope. Billionaire David M. Rubenstein, the son of a Baltimore postal worker, is interested in historical sites and has donated millions to sites around Washington, including 7.5 million toward fixing Washington's Washington Monument. Maybe he has interest in being a benefactor for historical sites in Baltimore? Governor Hogan recently appointed a World War One Centennial Commission to develop activities and events for the war's 100th anniversary. Maybe that group could lead the project. One other option might be having the Maryland Zoo helping with day-to-day upkeep.


The plaque in front of the Oak honoring the sacrifice of troops from Washington.

Nearly a hundred years after one of America's bloodiest wars, this memorial site is forgotten and neglected. Now that we've arrived at World World I's centennial, perhaps we'll find a way to restore the site and honor those who sacrificed.

Preservation


Does Silver Spring's Perpetual building deserve perpetual preservation? Possibly.

In 2007, an effort to give historic designation to the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring failed. But new information suggests that Perpetual might have played an important role in African-American suburbanization.


The former Perpetual Building Association building in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Adding the 1958 building to the county's Master Plan for Historic Preservation would have ensured the Perpetual building's presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II. The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington's rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

Multiple arguments for historic significance did not hold up

Adding a property to a local landmark list can have tremendous consequences for an owner who does not agree with the designation, like Perpetual's. Designation must be legally defensible. Historic preservation advocates' key arguments—that the Perpetual building was architecturally significant because of the modernist design architect Robert Scholz had used, and that it had played a significant role in local history—were not.

Preservationists' first argument came in the summer of 2007, when the made their case to the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). (In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the Montgomery County HPC's vice-chairman at the time and I chaired the meeting in August 2007 where the final vote was taken.)

The documents that the preservationists submitted did little more than than appeal to save an interesting looking building that might have had an interesting story—a story preservationists could only support using digitized historical newspapers as their leading evidentiary source.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Other HPC members and I pressed the preservationists about their sources, and while the SSHS provided a lot of newspaper articles about the building and the business, it failed to make a compelling case for why it met the legal standard for historic preservation. After the first HPC hearing in July 2007, I told SSHS members to come back with more information that connects the building to the community. I urged them to find people who recalled opening their first bank accounts there as children; folks who got their first mortgage there—anything to make the building something other than a block of midcentury corporate architecture.

In August 2007, at the HPC meeting about the building, I said, "We have a lot of information, but I don't think we have sufficiently contextualized information."

Still, the HPC voted 4-2 to forward a recommendation to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the Perpetual building be designated because it had "character, interest or a value as part of the development of Montgomery County." The HPC had rejected all of the arguments that the building was architectural significant and that it's history was remarkable.

The Planning Board, however, did not agree when it heard the case the next year. "We were not convinced that the history or architecture of this building met the standards of Chapter 24A or the Master Plan for Historic Preservation," wrote then-chairman Royce Hanson in the letter transmitting the amendment.

That eventually led to Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), an organization allied with SSHS, suing the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) over a procedural matter (the County Council didn't take action on the draft amendment that came out of the Planning Board hearing), with both the Court of Special Appeals [PDF] (in 2009) and the and the Maryland Court of Appeals saying that the Planning Board had acted lawfully.


The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

The Perpetual building may be more significant than we thought

I had all but forgotten about the Perpetual case, except for those occasions when I discussed it with clients in my consulting practice. Last year I began doing a lot of research that involved editions of the Washington Afro-American newspaper published between 1950 and 1990. Among the ads for grocery stores, movie listings, life insurance, and cigarettes were display ads for the Perpetual Building Association. In many issues, the Perpetual ad was the only one for a bank.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Washington's history of discriminatory real estate and mortgage lending practices has been well documented. Residential suburbs in the District, Maryland, and Virginia were built on legal foundations cobbled together from restrictive racial covenants and redlining. Yet here was an established historic Washington bank marketing itself to African-Americans.

None of the Montgomery County historic preservation documentation mentioned the role Perpetual might have played in African-American suburbanization after World War II. Was this the missing history historic preservation reviewers wanted back in 2007? Perhaps. Do comments left in SSHS Facebook posts from people who remember banking at Perpetual qualify as the community link I urged preservationists to find a decade ago? Maybe.

Is Silver Spring's former Perpetual bank building historic? Even after a decade has passed, including hearings by the HPC and Planning Board plus cases that worked their ways through the Maryland courts, I don't think anyone's fully capable of answering that question.

History


Vice City: A map of where all the Vice Presidents have lived

From our nation's founding until 1977, vice presidents had to find their own place to live. I created a map of where they made their homes, from boarding houses in the shadow of the Capitol building to large estates in nearby Maryland and Virginia.


Stars are buildings that still exist; colors signify the half-century they were occupied. Map by the author.

I found 58 houses and hotels were vice presidents lived. Twenty-five of these homes still remain today, and 17 of them are still used as private homes or hotels.

The map includes at least one residence for every vice president, even Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in DC for five days, and John Tyler, who lived here for just one day. The one exception is William R. King, who was inaugurated in Cuba and died six weeks later without ever coming to Washington. This is not a complete list, as some directories don't include the information or aren't easily available, and some vice presidents likely moved mid-session (Aaron Burr did it once) and their new homes might not have been recorded.

The first vice presidents lived in boarding houses

Starting with President John Adams in 1800, presidents lived in the White House, which was then the largest house in the United States. In contrast, Adams' vice president, Thomas Jefferson, rented a bedroom and parlor in a Capitol Hill boarding house where he lived with 30 other members of Congress, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, and a handful of their wives. Similar to Jefferson, most of the early vice presidents lived in boarding houses, many near the Capitol.

Later, vice presidents lived in hotels, starting with George M. Dallas in 1845. Others followed suit over the next century until John Nance Garner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president who lived in the Hotel Washington until 1941, became the last. Others rented private homes or lived with wealthy residents. In 1889, William Henry Benjamin Harrison's vice president Levi P. Morton was the first to own his own home (or possibly Schuyler Colfax 20 years earlier), but by the 1950s personal ownership became the norm.

It wasn't only the kinds of homes that changed, but also the locations. Until 1839, most vice presidents lived on Capitol Hill. From the 1840s to the 1920s, vice presidents lived almost exclusively within what we now call the Central Business District, except for John C. Calhoun's time at Dumbarton in Georgetown. In 1919, Thomas Marshall moved outside of the L'Enfant City to stay in the old Wardman Park Hotel, and 20 years later, Garner would be the last VP to live downtown. After World War II, vice presidents moved toward the upper northwest part of DC and into Maryland and Virginia.

Of the 25 remaining vice presidential residences, the oldest one is 1909 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. In the late 18th century, it was home to Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who served under James Madison and gave is the eponym of the term "gerrymandering." The building was a boarding house at the time, and Gerry lived with the secretaries of the Navy, War, and Treasury. Today, that building is part of the Mexican Embassy.

The Naval Observatory is now the vice president's permanent home

In 1951, Congress directed the Secret Service to protect the vice president and their family, which would eventually lead to the creation of a permanent vice presidential residence. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Secret Service gave vice presidents full-time, in-home protection, which required expensive improvements to their private homes.

In 1966, Congress authorized the creation of an official vice presidential residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, but postponed construction until after the Vietnam War. For the following eight years, the Secret Service spent $123,000 to safeguard the private homes of Hubert H. Humphrey, $250,000 for Spiro Agnew, and $80,000 for Gerald Ford.

Due to public outrage over the cost of improving Spiro Agnew's house, Congress took an existing house next to the lot where the vice presidential house would go and made it the "Official Temporary Vice-President's Residence." The 33-room mansion, then known as Admiral's House, had served as the home of the Chief of Naval Operations since 1923. Due to political opposition to the cost of building a permanent home, and concerns from astronomers at the Naval Observatory that a new house would interfere with their work, a new house was never built.

Admiral's House, now called One Observatory Circle, became the official vice president's residence in 1975. However, then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller only used it for entertaining, preferring to stay at his sprawling estate in the Foxhall neighborhood. In 1977, Walter Mondale and his family became the first to move in to the official residence. Since then, six vice presidents have lived there (though ongoing maintenance to the house has delayed the Second Family from moving in on at least three occasions), tying it with the Willard Hotel for housing the most vice presidents.

Development


To get ideas for reusing the historic Franklin School building, DC can look to Newark, NJ

The Franklin School, at 13th and K NW, is an iconic DC building, but it has been vacant and abandoned since 2008. On a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, I got a glimpse of another use for old, historic buildings.


The Franklin School building. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Designed and built in the 1860s by Adolph Cluss, who also designed Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the Franklin building has a Great Hall that could seat 1,000. It was the centerpiece for DC's public education system—its big windows for light, along with roomy and airy spaces, made for a great learning environment—as well as a resource for community concerts, exhibitions, and public meetings.

Before being abandoned, the building most recently served as a homeless shelter. Mayor Vincent Gray pushed to renovate it, but when Mayor Muriel Bowser became mayer she reversed course and put the proposals on hold. Though Bowser solicited new proposals in October 2015, she has not provided any timeline for review and decision making.

Throughout the 2000s, the DC Council had multiple opportunities to make the building eligible to lease or sell but failed to do so. A 2005 deal to turn Franklin School into a hotel fell through because the proposed lease wasn't valid, and the discussion over what to do with the building has been plagued by a lack of focus, transparency, and analysis of redevelopment options, the kind of thing that can keep proposals with a lot of merit from ever even coming forward.

It's not as if we don't know how to preserve important historic structures. It took just two years after a 2007 fire at Eastern Market for the neighborhood jewel to reopen: Local firm Quinn Evans Architects replaced the roof while retaining many of the original iron trusses, and added sustainability features including high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, high-performance glazing, and stormwater filtration.
Thinking creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents is an essential task for every city and town.

So why have we struggled with the Franklin building so much?

Here's what Newark did with its equivalent of the Franklin School building

If I could, I'd take some of DC's leaders on a field trip to Newark, New Jersey to visit the Hahne & Company department store building.


Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

There, a truly collaborative effort between the City of Newark, Rutgers University - Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase has resulted in an old icon (a former star of local retail, it's been in disrepair for 30 years) becoming the centerpiece of Newark's recovering downtown.


Construction workers inside a gutted Hahne building. Photo from L&M Development.

During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed use, mixed-income space will be open to its first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready.

The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open this spring. Rutgers University - Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. The project has put nearly every relevant tax credit to use—historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight—4-stories above the central atrium—is being meticulously restored to its former glory.


Rendering from L&M Development.

As it turns out, Newark is a hotbed of preservation and reuse. Not far from the Hahne building, a similar coalition is nearly finished renovating the former American Insurance Company tower into a building that will have both retail and residential uses. When it comes to historic preservation, partnerships across sectors, and creating new housing, these projects are transformative.

In Newark, preservationists and other key stakeholders are taking full advantage of the assets they have available—60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents.

Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place—a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through—that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town. In the nation's capital, we have plenty of opportunities to apply these lessons.

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

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