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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.

By Marc Fisher |  March 27, 2007; 7:48 AM ET
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Comments

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Bill Duggan should include a sign with Blackie's informal motto: "We do not serve Coca-Cola products."

Anybody know why Blackie refused to serve Coke products in any of his establishments?

Posted by: Mister Methane | March 27, 2007 9:14 AM

Bill Duggan's got a great idea that preserves a part of and honors the history of the club/hospitality industry in this city.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 9:24 AM

That's a classic historical preservation thing - you can do whatever you want to the back, just not in front.

They're probably afraid if they make an exception for him they'll be dealing with a mountain of others who also want exceptions.

Posted by: AnnR | March 27, 2007 9:54 AM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't they want to put the iron balconies on the building where DCCD used to be, down next to the walkway that connects back to Champlain Street? You talk about painting over a mural, but that's not the Madam's Organ mural, it's the one on the building shown on the first page of January's InTowner.

http://www.intowner.com/fr/pdf/2007January.pdf

It's a little confusing following your article here...

Posted by: IMGoph | March 27, 2007 10:27 AM

The horrific silver paintjob on Chloe a few doors up--not to mention the "Lofts," "Belmont Tower," and all the other frou and frippery the likes of PN Hoffman have thrown up in the past 7 years--makes Blackie's wrought iron balconies seem like staid understatement. I would worry about some intern heaving up jello shooters onto the sidewalk below, but that's another story.

Posted by: Kaloramaist | March 27, 2007 10:38 AM

Anyone who knows Bill knows that the only thing he loves is another dollar.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 10:49 AM

So this must be the same board that eagerly allowed someone to buy the Comet building, sell the most iconic sign in the neighborhood to someone out by Chevy Chase Circle, and replace it with a Foot Locker?

We are blessed with a Historic Preseveration Board whose sense of architectural consistency is matched only by its keen aesthetic eye and sense of good taste.

Anyone ever been in downtown Houston? It's a glimpse into the future.

Posted by: kungpao | March 27, 2007 10:53 AM

The Historic Preservationists drive me crazy; when the Open Park folks offered free wireless on Capitol Hill, the preservationists went wild about where the antennas and transceivers could go. Anytime someone tries to bring vitality, originality and flair, the stodgy voice of the past roars in our ears. Let Duggan put up his balconies -- they will curtail the disgusting clouds of cigarette smoke rtelegated to the sidewalks by the unnecessary smoking ban.

Posted by: Peter B | March 27, 2007 10:54 AM

Since developers in this town have a long history (no pun intended) of pimping and co-opting preservationists, Duggan should find a deep-pocketed developer who can buy off the politicians and the historic preservation crowd. Then he'll get what he wants.

It's the DC way -- then, now, tomorrow and forever.

Posted by: dirrtysw | March 27, 2007 11:24 AM

To Kungpao: Sid Drazin's daughter still owns the Comet building and she was the one who sold the sign and all the materials inside.

As for Duggan and the situation in the old DC/CD building. Marc, did you ask him why he bought the building at auction and let it sit vacant and deteriorating for three years before he decided to do something with it? He only came foward with his plans after the area was designated historic. Had he acted a bit sooner, this would be a non-issue.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | March 27, 2007 11:30 AM

Fisher is nothing if not consistent. If you come into an area, running a business that he likes, you have the right to do anything you wish. Your business after all is "saving" the community and far more important than anything else going on. The city's neighborhoods represent more than labs that allow him to vary his social life.

Posted by: CW | March 27, 2007 11:43 AM

Anonymous posted "Anyone who knows Bill knows that the only thing he loves is another dollar."

Of course he loves a dollar. Who doesn't? Do you work for free, or do you get paid in dollars? The people who say this just fry me. The guy know how to run a a certain type of night spot, and he is trying to maximize profits without rebuilding as a super trendy club. If money was his only "love," he could easily get into another business that is far more profitable than his club.

Posted by: Capitalist | March 27, 2007 12:43 PM

*NEWSFLASH*

The District is run by bureaucratic morons. Duggan should let the building crumble and then be in position to build his vision. Another fine example of how BIG government serves no one but it's own self interests.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 27, 2007 2:15 PM

Tyrannical busybodies rule the roosts in DC. MD, and NoVa. Some of us think it has already gone too far, but I suspect it will go way past the comedic before the backlash.

Posted by: gitarre | March 27, 2007 2:18 PM

I know Bill Duggan as a provider of mostly delightful entertainment, pub food, atmosphere, and fun via MO. People may not know that he also helps his staff quit smoking and provides a shore-based summer experience for inner-city kids for free. He's my kind of "money-grubber."

Posted by: Peter | March 27, 2007 2:33 PM

There's also a new building right around the corner on Columbia Road in the DWR building with really ugly wrought iron balconies on every floor, at least 20 of them - doesn't fit in with the historic neighborhood at all. That was acceptable, but Madam's cant have one or two? Heaven and Hell can paint it's facade purple, and that's in keeping with historic reality? Ridiculous.

Posted by: mojo | March 27, 2007 2:42 PM

Just an editorial note, the text suggests that Mort Kondracke is dangerously unstable. You need to insert the word - is - in the sentence.......

Posted by: Jefff | March 27, 2007 3:58 PM

Joy Zinoman, that great DC presence, had the same sort of hassles trying to renovate and expand the Studio Theatre at 14th and P NW. They should let people with real, actual blood, sweat and tears invested in the community make the sort of improvements that they are far more qualified to judge than the planning boards across the region....

Posted by: Jeff | March 27, 2007 4:03 PM

The only thing these preservationists preserve is their idle time and egos. They have managed to keep blighted areas like Tenleytown free from any kind of change. Now they are working up a case to do the same to Chevy Chase. One smart fellow there suggested that maybe the property owners should get to vote up or down on the historic district, and the preservationists flew into a rage that anyone would question their intentions.

Posted by: korm | March 28, 2007 12:19 AM

Right. Like anyone who's been in Adams Morgan at 2 AM would feel comfortable walking under balconies filled with drunk suburbanites. Please.

C'mon, Marc. Not like I'm a rabid preservationist, but you know he bought the things at auction to provoke a fight 'cause he was just pissed about being included in a historic district in the first place. What a baby.

Posted by: Mark | March 28, 2007 8:07 PM

Korm,

You are a little off on your characterizations. The NIMBY folks in Tenleytown and Friendship Heights are a different crowd than the folks who want a historic district in Chevy Chase.

Indeed, the TT/FH NIMBYs also appear to be opposed to the historic district discussion.

With respect to a vote, it is hard to say. The ANC needs to have some sense of community sentiment, beyond their own convictions, to be able to weigh in on the proposals. There have been a few very loud opponents to the proposal, but there are also a few loud proponents. It is tough to say where the middle 90% are with it. The other question is what is the nature of the balloting, and what kids of information is provided with the ballot, and who gets to vote? Is the vote binding or can the DC Historic office beyond the ANC vote?

After all, it is the obligation of the historic office to protect historic structures.

(Although the metal trim issue in Adams Morgan seems acceptable)

Posted by: NW resident | March 30, 2007 8:01 AM

Mark, thanks for your article but I would like to add a couple of corrections...the balconies are intended for the building at 2423 18th st, the old dccd building at the entrance to the parking lot...a building much more suited to the use of baconies and ironwork than the Madam's Organ building...as both the ANC and Adam's Morgan Mainstreet agreed when they unanimously voted in open meetings to ask the Historic Board to approve the plan...the Madam mural will stay intact...as for why we waited to submit the plan...we changed our plans to incorporate the Blackies ironwork when we heard that it would become available. It took the architect, Matt Blakey months to inventory and design the building around this. But we did submit the plans prior to the Historic designation...one week before...but the Historic people had another trick up their sleeves...they had no-one manning the desk at DCRA where only a signature would have verified that the building was not in an historic zone...no-one in their right mind(although I've not been accused of that very often)would delay in order to "create controversy"...the expense of carrying an empty building may, in the end, doom the project...and to the preservationists' delight, bring a new Foot Locker, Wendy's, or, perhaps,if the stars are aligned justright, a Pizza Hut/KFC, just what the neighborhood needs and wants.
I'm passionate about the buiding's plans and my Adam's Morgan neighborhood in general. However, this process, as well as the over-all anti small business climate that is seemingly consuming this city could try the patience of Job....or set the stage for a JOB'S FINAL LIQUIDATION--EVERYTHING MUST GO--GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE!!!
To all who support our plan, WE NEED YOUR HELP! We'll be going before the HPRB in May and any and all help will be greatly appreciated...
ps
We'll be posting the complete plans on the front and side of the building within the next week for anyone to see and comment on

Posted by: Bill Duggan | March 30, 2007 9:23 AM

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