Preserve History, Not Random Old Stuff
The District of Columbia is hardly short on history. From the federal core to colonial neighborhoods, from unique landmarks such as St. Elizabeths Hospital and Georgetown's Old Stone House to funky treasures such as the Old Naval Hospital and Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, we have an abundance of architectural riches for preservationists to protect.
But Washington is also home to a radical fringe of preservationists who seem to believe that any old building--and even some not-at-all-old buildings--are worth a battle. And that attitude has liberated neighborhood groups that oppose the residential density and retailing necessary to expand the city's tax base to wave the flag of historic preservation as their primary obstructionist tool.
So I'm always a little wary of the annual list of Most Endangered Places put out by the D.C. Preservation League. Mixed in with such worthy sites as St. Elizabeths--which the federal government now proposes to take over and turn into a new campus for the Homeland Security apparatus--and the McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site--an eerie and cool 25-acre expanse of odd towers that look like something out of a sci-fi flick--are some supposedly historic buildings that really ought to be redeveloped as soon as possible.
The Martin Luther King library downtown, for example, makes this year's list despite being of little use as a library. Almost from the start, the 1972 building has been an unpleasant place in which to read or do research. It's awkwardly designed, in terrible condition, and is better suited for offices or retail than for a library. The Mies van der Rohe building was designed to be expanded, which makes it perfect for redevelopment, but some library fans are joining with some preservationists to cling to its use as a library, despite three decades of failure in that function.
Nearly all of the buildings on this year's list deserve attention and many require renovation. But the Preservation League is too quick to denounce development plans that, as in the case of the Soldiers Home on N. Capitol Street, would actually raise the money to save the historic structures on the campus. Similarly, the league seems stingy about endorsing the degree of development that the McMillan site calls out for--it's one of the largest development-ripe sites left in a city that desperately needs residential and retail expansion.
The league last year included in its list the neighborhood around the new Nationals ballpark site--including a number of buildings that are being demolished as we speak. That area was a pit, a place that cried out for demolition crews. The league diminishes its credibility when it lumps such places together with gems such as the Franklin School or the Howard Theatre.
Worse, by diluting the value of places that are worth preserving, the list invites neighborhood groups to declare "historic" some places that ought to go. Example: Anti-development forces in upper Northwest are gearing up to argue for declaring a Metro bus barn across from Mazza Gallerie to be...historic. Metro has been trying for years to sell off that land for an extensive retail and residential development of the kind that is essential to the growth of the under-retailed and underdeveloped Wisconsin Avenue corridor, but the threat of historic designation has scared off some developers.
Saving the truly historic is hard and too often unheralded work. But preservationists only make it harder for themselves when they show too great a willingness to declare anything older than an adolescent to be an essential piece of the past.
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