Madam's Organ to Save a Bit of Blackie's--If DC Allows It
Bill Duggan is a rare iconoclast to survive and thrive in the social conservativism of Washington. Duggan's bar in Adams Morgan, Madam's Organ, is the kind of place where you can hear blues or jazz deep into the night, the rare D.C. spot that wins a place of honor in Playboy's accounting of the best bars in the land. For more than three decades, Duggan has been pushing the envelope on 18th Street NW, whether running an arts collective, operating an edgy club, putting a huge pair of breasts up on a mural overlooking the neighborhood's main drag, or doing whatever he can to turn staid old Washington into a happening place.
Duggan's latest endeavor is to save a trace of another longtime D.C. institution, Blackie's House of Beef, the classic steakhouse at 22nd and M that Blackie Auger presided over for many decades before his family closed the place last year. Before Blackie's vanished, Duggan obtained the beautiful black wrought iron balconies that were the restaurant's distinctive marking. (Check out the memories of that place gathered up in a contest sponsored by the company that tore down the eatery.) The balconies cost Duggan $40,000.
Duggan loved the New Orleans iron balconies and thought they would go well with the redo of his building that he's planning. Duggan's building on 18th Street is in sad shape, its side wall--the one with the mural, which was originally painted by Andrea Kondracke, the artist daughter of pundit Mort Kondracke--dangerously unstable. So Duggan came up with plans to save the front facade of the building, tear down the rest, and build a new one, featuring the Blackie's balconies on the front and wrapping around the side. The idea was to create a New Orleans-style scene in which customers could hang out on the balcony on a nice evening.
Enter the District's historic preservation police. Adams Morgan is yet another of the city's historic districts, giving the city extraordinary authority over what property owners can do with their buildings. In this case, the preservation office showed unusual flexibility, if grudgingly.
The staff report issued in December agreed with Duggan that the current building at 2423 18th Street is unstable and can be demolished, save for the front facade. Built in 1904, the building never had wrought iron balconies, but the city's staff agreed that Adams Morgan is a place known for "its flamboyant approach to signage and building decoration." So far, so good. "In general, a proposal to apply a substantial amount of wrought iron onto a 1904 rowhouse would seem out of character in a historic district," the report says. But given the "less traditional character" of the Adams Morgan strip, Blackie's iron is ok.
Ah, but don't celebrate this outburst of reason quite yet. The staff report then strongly recommends that "the iron be restricted to the rear of the building" so that the front and the most visible part of the side "can be read as an intact historic building."
In other words, untraditional character and flamboyance are wonderful, sure thing, but tuck that wacky stuff in the back, where no one can see it. The front must be pristine. Rather than a cool balcony up front, the staff tells Duggan he must restore a metal sign that reads "Upholstering & Cabinet Making" that was part of the building's design a century or so ago.
Rather than accept such a gutting of his project, Duggan has for now withdrawn his plans. He's trying to muster political support for his project, and he's gathered historic photos showing that Adams Morgan indeed was home to buildings with wrought iron on their fronts way back in the time the preservation police honor so reverently.
"This just seemed like such a slam dunk," Duggan told me. "This is history. You have no idea what to expect from these people." Duggan is reaching out to D.C. council members for support, and of course, he'd love to have the people who know, use and love Adams Morgan on his side as well.
As he should. The only way to save the preservation police from their extreme instincts is for the public to step up and make it clear that preserving the past is a good thing, but only in moderation. When someone who loves his neighborhood and has done as much for it as Bill Duggan comes along specifically to save a beloved piece of Washington history, the last thing he needs is for the bureaucrats to stomp him down with their maniacal allegiance to overly strict rules.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Mister Methane | March 27, 2007 9:14 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 9:24 AM
Posted by: AnnR | March 27, 2007 9:54 AM
Posted by: IMGoph | March 27, 2007 10:27 AM
Posted by: Kaloramaist | March 27, 2007 10:38 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 10:49 AM
Posted by: kungpao | March 27, 2007 10:53 AM
Posted by: Peter B | March 27, 2007 10:54 AM
Posted by: dirrtysw | March 27, 2007 11:24 AM
Posted by: Adams Morgan | March 27, 2007 11:30 AM
Posted by: CW | March 27, 2007 11:43 AM
Posted by: Capitalist | March 27, 2007 12:43 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 2:15 PM
Posted by: gitarre | March 27, 2007 2:18 PM
Posted by: Peter | March 27, 2007 2:33 PM
Posted by: mojo | March 27, 2007 2:42 PM
Posted by: Jefff | March 27, 2007 3:58 PM
Posted by: Jeff | March 27, 2007 4:03 PM
Posted by: korm | March 28, 2007 12:19 AM
Posted by: Mark | March 28, 2007 8:07 PM
Posted by: NW resident | March 30, 2007 8:01 AM
Posted by: Bill Duggan | March 30, 2007 9:23 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.