05 May 2010

Chip, chip, chipping away at DC's historic housing stock

The 700 block of 2nd Street NE is home to rowhouses and an enormous rear alley structure that are doomed to be destroyed. According to DCmud, these properties are owned by the Louis Dreyfus Property Group, who intends to tear the buildings down and construct a Planned Unit Development (PUD) which would consist of a large apartment building, among other uses, adding density to the neighborhood but sacrificing some of its character.

Where these buildings two blocks south, they would have been protected by the Capitol Hill Historic District:

 Map from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society website (PDF).

Ironically, DCmud states that part of the trade-off for these buildings' destruction would be that Dreyfus would pay for a study that could potentially lead to an expansion of the historic district (too late for these buildings, though). I stressed the potential aspect of this, because in recent years, we've seen attempts to establish historic districts fail as often as they have succeeded.

In the last week, fencing has gone up around the buildings (see pictures below). Take special note of the last photograph, which shows a large building in the alley, too large to call a carriage house. It appears to have been a light-industrial building of some sort (perhaps Richard Layman can chime in and give some more background about this building). Regardless, there are some solid structures that will be lost when they are finally torn down, to be replaced by something that I don't hesitate to say will likely not have any kind of the permanence many of these buildings have exhibited.

I've heard people argue that it's alright if we lose a historic building or two here and there. What's the big deal? DC has thousands of them! The benefits of increased density far outweigh the loss of historic residential stock.

But I have pointed out before on my old blog that we are constantly losing these old houses to neglect or, as Layman astutely points out, a malady he calls "blaming the building" (mentioned here as well). The chipping away of our historical housing stock is especially disturbing to me in neighborhoods where most of this housing still exists in contiguous blocks. Part of what makes Bloomingdale such a nice neighborhood architecturally is the fact that, block-by-block, the original houses are all still standing. Shaw, on the other hand, has many places (particularly along the streets that were decimated in the 1968 riots) where that continuity is interrupted by 'modern' public housing projects or commercial structures that stand out like sore thumbs in the streetscape.

Perhaps witnessing the loss of more old structures convinces people in neighborhoods to rally for historic district status. The residents of Barney Circle are leading the way. Hopefully more neighborhoods (like Eckington and Bloomingdale, Brookland and Chevy Chase) will take note of the potential losses and do what's necessary to keep their neighborhoods from being destroyed one house at a time.


  1. Seriously? There are *several* lots within 3 blocks of here that are either empty, blighted, or parking lots.

    I bike past these buildings each morning, and have been wondering what the fencing was for. It's completely baffling that the developer is opting to demolish these (expensive-looking) homes instead of building on one of the many nearby empty lots.

    We should work on restoring the continuity of Capitol Hill -- not destroying it.

  2. How about a compromise? Why can't the developer at lease save the facade? It'll make the building blend in better with the neighborhood while preserving some character. Plus, it might actually help the selling/rental price of the units.

  3. Anonymous: I agree. I didn't go into that at length in this article, but I really think that a facadectomy, while not ideal, would be a better compromise here.

    That alley building will haunt my dreams, though. That thing is one-of-a-kind, and tearing it down should be a crime.

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with the tone and sentiments being conveyed in this "conversation". But I have to point out that this deal is done...unless one of you wants to handcuff yourself to the iron railings, it's full steam ahead...

  5. I think what's interesting about Barney Circle is that it's 100% residential. There's no commercial space included in the historic district. Maybe that has an impact on the community's willingness to go ahead with the proposal?

    I've seen historic communities that want to bring businesses in to revitalize the neighborhood, and that complicates things. Proprietors aren't always too happy to set up shop in a place where they can't modify, especially if they have little connection to the community. This reminds me of that—Dreyfus is building condos, which is totally different than moving into a space and preserving it.

    Quite a conundrum. Preservation is hard; on one hand, I like the idea of progress and "bettering quality of life" (and neighborhoods have seen so many changes before we've gotten to them—doesn't it make sense that they should see even more?), but this scenario is a shame. There are so many empty lots around this area that could have been used instead, but I imagine that Dreyfus wasn't at all interested in selling something it already held in order to save some buildings (that alley building is killing me!). Do you know how far along they are in the permit process? I also want to look into their paying for a study.

    Good post, thank you.

  6. to andrew,

    Why do you believe there is only one developer in DC?


  7. Drove by this morning. Demolition has started on a few of the buildings. Pity.

  8. Where is the picture of that alley?

  9. Anonymous: The alley picture was taken near the middle of this block.

  10. The historic society defines vague rules that they enforce sporadically or not at all. If they had a uniform set of standards that they enforced, it would be one thing. However, they bend or ignore the rules inconsistently. So we're left with professionals who can game them, and homeowners who would probably like to permit things, but are afraid to get turned down and certainly don't want to wait 3 months to get approval.

  11. Good post, IMGoph.
    Your comments on intact vs fragmented historic fabric are particularly important, I think.
    downtown rez

  12. Dreyfus could make more money if they integrated the old with the new. People pay for old details, whereas a cleanly built PUD is about as charming as a suburban mall, and will be perceived in the same way as suburban malls are in about 20 years. A major problem with DC preservation is the all-or-nothing approach. We walk past blocks of perfectly preserved victoriana, and then blocks of flat-slabbed contemporary, with very little in-between. We don't yet have a sophisticated integration style, like cities that have a lot more historic inventory do. People care about the mix of modern design, and ancient connections, not just museum like preservation vs bulldozing.

    We need more of this style of historic preservation, the sort that people actually travel to see.

  13. i agree that dc's historic stock should be preserved. my impression of 1950s - 1990s urban planning is that developers would have wanted to demolish all of dc's historic housing and build suburban subdivisions and giant ugly apartment buildings. imagine dc today is that kind of architecture (cough cough southwest). i would definitely not want to live there!

    generally speaking most buildings built before 1930 are so much more pleasing to the eye than anything built today. why cant we have historic districts where its ok to modify your house but not tear it down? thats a good compromise right?


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?