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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.

By Marc Fisher |  May 25, 2006; 7:46 AM ET
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Didn't some neighborhood get a rundown Giant to be declared historic as "an example of post-WW2 architecture"? Is there any reason to save anything post-WW2? They're usually ugly, hastily constructed buildings.

Posted by: tallbear | May 25, 2006 9:27 AM

I'm not too familiar with most of the sites on the list, so I won't comment. However, from the League's website, it doesn't seem like they are trying to keep MLK as the central library building, they just want to make sure that a Mies van der Rohe building doesn't get torn down. They seem open to an adapted use for the building. Sounds reasonable to me.

Posted by: J | May 25, 2006 9:29 AM

Marc I agree that calling the Metro bus barn in Friendship Heights "historic" is insane (it is ugly and unremarkable, which is not to say that some bus or car barns -- like the one in Georgetown -- might qualify).

But it is hard to understand how you could call that particular stretch of Wisconsin Avenue (at Western) under-retailed. Have you been there lately? Two large indoor malls, Hecht's (soon to be Macy's), a major development going up behind Hecht's, and the totally over-the-top redo of Chevy Chase Center.

The area of Wisconsin around Tenleytown still could use more retail and more density (although many residents disagree), but the area around the bus barn doesn't lack for it.

Posted by: Meridian | May 25, 2006 9:40 AM

I gave up on this city when the Foggy Bottom folks started whining about the development at the old GW Hospital space.

Really...if we are going to NIMBY density on top of a Metro Station, less than a mile away from the entrance/exits of three of the major highway arteries (66, GWP, Rock Creek Parkway), exactly where is density okay? Idiocy. While this city caves to the whiny NIMBYs, it rapidly becomes the bedroom community for the real downtown of the 66/Dulles Corridor, which is just stupid on every level.

Oh, and Meridian...a couple of blocks of retail isn't exactly huge. What's on Wisconsin could be fit in a relatively small suburban retail development...which is why the 66/Dulles corridor is becoming the real downtown of the region.

Posted by: NIMBY fools | May 25, 2006 9:55 AM

I guess we can look forward to RFK Stadium being on the list in a few years. Then after that is all settled, there will be at least ten years before anything happens to the site .

Posted by: WFY | May 25, 2006 10:07 AM

Mr. Fisher, thank you for your comments. DCPL does not seek to stop development, in fact, they welcome it at St. Es, AFRH, Walter Reed and McMillan. These sites however, are all deemed historic and thus should be viewed as such. Secretery of the Interior Standards for alteration of a landmark call for any changes to enhance the landmark not destroy it's historic character. I don't find this to be radical at all.

Posted by: KM | May 25, 2006 10:43 AM

I've been trying to find someone that can tell me how to get access to the MacMillian site to take photographs of it for several years now. It's such an interesting place. Sadly, nobody seems interested in talking about it, and phone calls and letters go unreturned.

I note that the DC WWI memorial is also on that list - another pretty and interesting site that not enough people know about.

I hope that this list encourages people to get out and see things that they may not have known about in their own city, maybe even in their own neighborhoods.

Posted by: sfw_dc | May 25, 2006 10:53 AM

You know, honestly I find the MLK library ugly, but I believe that feeling is mostly prompted by the fact that it is populated by more homeless than library goers. At any rate it cannot be compared to a Giant or a bus stop. Mies van der Rohe is widely recognized as a major 20th century architect and as such his work deserves at least a small effort to save it from the bulldozer, even if the site is no longer a library.

Posted by: tdp | May 25, 2006 11:18 AM

I agree 100% with you Marc, I think its more about power, control and convience.

The Historic needs to be updated and better defined.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 25, 2006 11:21 AM

Marc has a history of being pro-development at any cost -- his opinions on this matter are invalid because of his love of DC area developers and buying into anything they feed him as fact.

Posted by: JC | May 25, 2006 11:41 AM

Let's not forget the campaign to save "historic" Engine Company 20 up in Tenleytown. The station was supposed to be renovated for $3M in a year, but the costs have more than doubled and four years later it's still nowhere near complete. Is that the DC government's fault, or is it just that difficult for a developer to "preserve the historic character" of an aging building?

If the MLK Library or RFK are formally designated as "historic" they'll become even less likely to be re-developed when the current tenants leave. Why not just open both of them up for squatters?

Posted by: athea | May 25, 2006 11:49 AM

"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"

LOL..thats like saying "I had to destroy it so I could save it". The Old Soldiers Home entire campus should be preserved. Preserving it could raise money for them also...

Posted by: Cliff | May 25, 2006 12:49 PM

I also have never interpeted the League's position on the MLK Library as one insisting upon continued use for that purpose. It is in fact the only Mies van der Rohe building in the city, a building very must representative of this lion of 20th century architectures work, and very worthy of perservation. The adaptive reuse of the building is a reasonable goal.

There is very many reasons in play for your preception of the building's failure as a library than its design and the fact that you find it unattractive.

Posted by: CW | May 25, 2006 1:22 PM

The recent landmark application for that unremarkable apartment building on the 1400 Block of RI Ave is the latest egregious example of groups who favor less density forming an unhealthy alliance with zealous preservationiists.

What a bunch of crap. They really will go too far one day, and damage what on balance is a good preservation legacy.

Posted by: none | May 25, 2006 1:35 PM

Oh, by the way, thanks for highlighting these issues today as HPRB is before the council asking for expanded authority, under the guise of making the "process" easier for us all and, I might note, extra lawyers to defend their seemingly arbitrary decisions.

Posted by: none | May 25, 2006 1:43 PM

How about the effort to save a piece of one side of an industrial facade on Irving Street next to the DC USA site. What a waste. And sidewalk is closed so pedestrians are booted into the street as a result of saving a piece of a wall for 3 years while construction proceeds. there are 3 schools within 1 block, so when the first kid gets runover, it won't be unexpected.

Tear down the wall, and give us back a useful sidewalk.

Posted by: Mt. P | May 25, 2006 1:52 PM

I personally commend the activities of these "zealous preservationists". Thank goodness SOMEONE is looking out to preserve these structures that, yes, believe it or not, do have some historic value either because of the architecture or actual historic events that took place there.

My mother's family CAME from Washington, DC. I think its wonderful that I can show my children where their ancestors lived, worked or are memorialized.

Kudos to Ms. Miller and the DC Preservation League for encouraging responsible uses for existing buildings, rather than encouraging a mad-dash to tear everything that is old down and replace with monstrosities.

Posted by: Beth | May 25, 2006 1:57 PM

The library? It's a dysfunctional eyesore. Mies made a mistake and he should be ashamed of it.

The Preservation League is spending other people's money in order to keep DC residents from adapting their infrastructure to the changing demands of the 21st Century. What a bunch of parasites.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | May 25, 2006 2:16 PM

NIMBYfools, the density of retail and nightmare traffic is why I avoid the 66/Dulles area and choose to live near the Cathedral instead. I don't need daily retail therapy to make me happy and I think there are plenty of stores in the Friendship Heights area. Traffic congestion is terrible in that area and will only get worse. But I guess that's just my opinion. If you want every urban area to have the same boring retail outlets that you can find in any mall across the U.S., then apparently you've got plenty of company.

That said, yes, the Metro lot is ugly and the area would be nicer if some interesting retail replaced it, but where are the buses to go?

I agree that the interior design of the MLK Library doesn't work well, and the many homeless people who take refuge inside and out take getting used to, but I work across the street and enjoy using the library very much and would hate to see it go. Actually, is there any library in the District that's "nice"? Tenleytown's (closed for renovation) was awful, and although the Geotown branch is ok, it's not much.

And yes to the first post, some neighborhood folks tried to get historic designation for the rundown old Giant on Macomb St. NW. Their actions delayed a much-needed renovation and expansion, and I only shop there when I need to grab one or two items. Not everything old is worth saving.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 25, 2006 2:24 PM

Why don't we encourage the DC Government to do an analysis on what it would cost to upgrade the MLK Library into a 21st century facility instead of name calling those who are trying to retain some history for our children?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 25, 2006 2:25 PM

Interesting comments by Mr. Fisher and others regarding the state of historic preservation practices in DC. DC might not be short on history, but history is tangible through the presence of historic structures and a sense of pride of place so easily lost to the wrecking ball of unchecked redevelopment (remember urban renewal anyone?). Just because one doesn't like the look of an older building, say one build in the 1960s, that doesn't mean it should automatically be demolished. I personally don't like the Modernist style nor the Post-modernist style for that matter but that does not mean it should go either. A posted response that actually makes an excellent point--that is of the need for updating the preservation laws. Currently the DC laws are rather lax in that really the only portion of sites deemed "historic" by the Preservation League (or for that matter the Historic Planning Review Board or HPRB) is the facade. This has lead to "facadism" as the practice is called where everything behind a structure's front or facade is demolished to make way for an over-sized office building. Gut job renovations are yet another problem in more residential neighborhoods where I've actually observed important oak and walnut paneling (some of it 200 years old), marble fireplace mantles, etc. removed because of an insensitive renovation and thrown in the dumpster. This is, in my opinion, a waste not only of our cultural heritage but also a waste of materials that could be recycled. Structures, by the way, can be sympathetically updated without the removal of all internal materials. Sadly, such practices are not merely limited to DC. I see these issues (and many other related items too numerous to recount here) as a matter of both law reform and public education through awareness. If I were in charge, the preservation laws would be drastically changed. Some of you are not going to like what I have to say and I know I'll be termed a--oh my God--"radical," but here it goes. Designated historic buildings would be "graded" on a scale of let's say "A" to "C." "A" represents a structure for which little change would be made and "C" would provide the greatest leeway for change. Land marking a structure would automatically include the interior and it would be up to the HPRB to decide which level it should be protected. Freaked out yet, probably, but this "radical" approach is employed in Europe and works very well. If such laws were in place then perhaps Mr. Fisher would stop whining about the preservation of "random old stuff." Nothing I daresay is random and once it is gone there is no replacing it. For you New Yorkers out there remember the destruction of Pennsylvania Station--still lamented to this day as a major national loss even after 40 years. Without radicals, there would be no Mount Vernon, Monticello or even Grand Central Terminal for us to enjoy today (they were quite the cutting edge of preservation during their time). Recommended reading for Mr. Fisher, Capital Losses by James Goode.

Posted by: Mr. Ultra Radical | May 25, 2006 4:26 PM

Why not build on Rock Creek Park for the much-needed D.C. retail and housing? Because it's beautiful recreational land for the West side of the city. There is a serious deficit of park space on the East side. The Soldiers Home (AFRH) once served as open space for that side of the city. It could, and should, do so again.

Posted by: Nmonster | May 25, 2006 4:38 PM

Of course we're not talking about buildings such as "Pennsylvania Station...Mount Vernon, Monticello or even Grand Central Terminal"

Increasingly, we're talking about preserving spec-built mid-century office/residential or other entirely unremarkable-save-for-age tripe. And the support from the broader public comes not from historians or architects, but from smart-growth enemies and NIMBYs.

Zealism can be useful, sure, but by definition it's not rational.

Posted by: none | May 25, 2006 5:34 PM

As the current president of the D.C. Preservation League, I thank you, Mr. Fisher, for paying attention to preservation issues. To respond to some of your comments and those of other posters:

-- our reason for including St. Es, McMillan Reservoir, Soldiers' Home and Walter Reed on this years' list was to highlight the number of public campuses that currently face some degree of development pressure. Each site is part of the "emerald necklace" contemplated in the McMillan Plan vision of the City, a series of civic sites that would combine fine architecture, housing public uses, with green, publicly-open park land. We are certainly not opposed to re-development, particularly if it helps rehabilitation and re-use of historic properties, but in this case we believe development should preserve the historic structures and the public, open space.

-- We do not insist that MLK library remain a library. It is the architectural significance of the building that counts most, not its use.

-- The question of whether mid- to late-20th century architecture is worth preserving will be with us for years to come, and is the subject of DCPL's current "DC Modern" program. As to the MLK library itself, some will love it, some will hate it -- one could say the same of Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery -- and the role of preservation is not to referee between them, but to preserve representative works of masters such as Mies. DC Modern seeks to start a dialogue among preservationists, architects, developers, and planners to identify those mid-century buildings in Washington that truly are of architectural consequence and worth preserving.

We are sensitive to the District's need to grow and prosper. But countless studies have shown that preservation and economic benefits can go hand in hand. We welcome anyone's assistance in striving to find the proper balance.

Posted by: Edwin Fountain | May 25, 2006 5:45 PM

NIMBYfools: I thought I made clear that I have no problem with replacing the bus station with retail or high-rise residential or whatever (assuming the buses have someplace to go).

My only quibble was with Marc's characterization as that stretch of Wisconsin as "under retailed," which I cant imagine anyone saying. But that observation is frequently, and accurately, made of the stretch of Wisconsin one Metro station to the south (Tenleytown), and I thought it was worth pointing out that those two areas should not be confused.

Also, your remark about "downtown" doesn't seem to make sense. Whether or not the bus station is replaced, the section of Friendship Heights in question (straddling the DC-MD line) is seeing a huge infusion of high-end retail you wont find anywhere else in the Metro area. There may be other parts of the District that are losing out to the suburbs, but that isnt one of them.

Posted by: Meridian | May 25, 2006 5:46 PM

Marc, I disagree with your view of the Soldier's Home. The Soldier's Home is a beautiful landmark that should be preserved in its entirety. Yes, the campus is in financial trouble but the proposed development is ill-conceived and will do little, if anything, to provide a financially viable solution for the retirement home ... and even less to protect the historic beauty and value of the Old Soldier's Home buildings and campus.

Posted by: L | May 25, 2006 6:25 PM

Your characterization of those persons who are opposing massive re-development of sites such as St. E's, Soldiers' Home, McMillan and Walter Reed as NIMBYs is unfair and unfounded. Re: Soldiers' Home, neighbors have taken the very reasonable position that a small portion of the proposed development area (around 15 acres) be saved as a public-access park. The reasons for this are many, and well-founded (see our website: We do not oppose development and retail (witness the plans for six such developments along Georgia within blocks of the metro). But smart growth MUST include open green space and parks, or this city will become unlivable and that much sought-after tax base will fail to materialize.

Posted by: Reyn | May 25, 2006 9:40 PM

As someone who has the kind of readership you do, both in the newspaper and your blog, you really do have a responsibility to learn more about placemaking, historic preservation, and current trends in designation.

Especially because historic preservation is the foundation of the livability and quality of life of the District of Columbia, and a majority of your columns discuss DC, as opposed to suburban, issues.

Preservation has moved far beyond saving particularly great buildings involving great white men and key events. (cf. the first signficant effort to save Mt. Vernon, back in the 1800s)

This is reflected in the criteria used by the National Register of Historic Places--which you can look up online, in the relevant section of the CFR.

I describe the change as reflecting the nexus of architecture, place, and history. And this change or at least broadening of the meaning of what is worthy of "saving" is the justification for historic districts more generally, especially neighborhood historic districts.

Furthermore, you almost more than anybody, ought to understand that DC's competitive advantage centers upon architecture, urban design, and history. Every time these elements of the city's competitive advantage are diminished, so too is the District of Columbia.

If you want to make the city into Bethesda or any other formless placeless suburb, fine, but be honest about it. (Like your column about how great it is to have a chain custard store in the city.)

Maybe you should jump in and support the Lerners in the desire to build above-ground parking around the stadium too.

If you (and some of the other commenters) would put in a modicum of effort to understand the basic principles, then the process wouldn't appear to you to be arbitrary.

Posted by: Richard Layman | May 25, 2006 10:17 PM

Since my earlier posts focused on what I consider to be excesses which damage the preservation cause, let me elaborate on the positive. 1st, I own and reside in a historic townhome in a historic district. I'm very grateful for and appreciative of this. 2nd, McMillan, the Soldiers' Home, St. Es, and MLK are clearly historic and should be treated with great respect on their own terms. 3rd, Mr. Fountain's statement on this blog is a welcome public demonstration of clear thinking and consideration of the common good.

I continue to stand behind my earlier criticisms. My considered opinion is that HPRB and HPO practices lend to expansion of authority by fiat, and arbitrary decision-making. They come across as good-guys whose authority has gone to their heads. They are also overly political, else why not oppose the GU Boathouse next to the Historic Canal and the Historic Canoe Club in the C&O National Historic Park? For that matter, why doesn't DCPL oppose it?

Expect the sound of crickets, rather than a response from Historic or DCPL...

Posted by: none | May 25, 2006 10:22 PM

McMillan reservoir is run the by the Army Corps of Engineers (Baltimore District), so maybe that is who to contact for access. However, it is not a safe place to be wandering around in.

Posted by: Fred | May 26, 2006 10:11 AM

Most worrisome is how we've gone from the admirable efforts of the "Don't Tear it Down" groups to the abitrary demands of bureaucrats and total lack of due process.

I read how one mid-century apartment building - I think it was Boston House - was forced to install extremely expensive double-paned windows -- costing half a million dollars more than the ones they wanted to install. Yet the ones demanded by preservationist bureaucrats were not at all like the onces being replaced. The ones the bureaucrats rejected were closer to the originals, but not as tasteful. And this involved a mid-century, brick and cinderblock post-war building!

The Preservationist movement now enjoys some very important and hard-fought rights that have been upheld by past Supreme Courts. But with two new Justices and the outcry from the Kelo decision, the rights of property owners are clearly on the ascent. Preservationists must work with property owners, because the Roberts Court may be far less receptive to preservation goals than previous courts.

The "takings" clause may not be entirely settled law, and due process never is.

Posted by: none | May 26, 2006 2:33 PM

I agree with my doppelganger. HPO and HPRB's arbitrary operating practices and lack of genuine due process are worrisome. It does not ease my mind that, under the guise of "easing" the process, HPO seeks more authority and more lawyers on staff to enforce it.

Posted by: The original none | May 27, 2006 4:44 PM

I agree with my doppelganger. HPO and HPRB's arbitrary operating practices and lack of genuine due process are worrisome. It does not ease my mind that, under the guise of "easing" the process, HPO seeks more authority and more lawyers on staff to enforce it.

Posted by: The original none | May 27, 2006 4:47 PM

A few years ago a friend of mine in mount pleasant wanted to add a kitchen deck. The historic rep said no, then wavered. She said, "well, maybe if you do something about your garden".

A garden! Not exactly a "structure".

Posted by: dc | May 30, 2006 1:32 PM

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