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Preservation Overkill: Fighting for What's Already Lost

Yesterday here on the big blog, I had nothing but praise for the D.C. Preservation League's efforts to hold on to Washington's spectacular views. Today, looking at the same list of Most Endangered Places in the city, I see some ruined and wrecked properties that may have once had architectural or historic value, but which are long, long gone.

This is where hard-core preservationists lose the public they seek to protect: This year's list of places in need of protection includes elegant rowhouses in Columbia Heights, Eckington, and Capitol Hill East--all lovely spots that help give the city its character. But then the League turns around and argues for the preservation of properties that have been so disfigured or destroyed by neglect and foolish repurposing that they are historic or valuable only in memory.

Yes, this city, like so many others, once boasted an extraordinary collections of movie houses that were designed with great fancy and humor. With the rare exceptions of the Uptown, the Avalon, the Tivoli, and the Warner, they are pretty much gone now. More than a few of those wonderful old theaters were gutted and turned into chainstores by the likes of CVS, that great ravager of urban spaces. But tell me, what is the remaining historic value of the Family Dollar store on Georgia Avenue NW that happens once upon a time to have been the Sheridan Theater? Looking at the photo on this last link, we see how a once-lovely theater has been disfigured; perhaps there's a civic lesson to be learned by studying that building, but should public efforts or funds be spent in trying to hold onto the building in its current state?

The preservationists have a much better argument when it comes to the District's deeply neglected classic school buildings. When structures such as Langston Elementary on Capitol Hill are permitted to rot for decade after decade, even as charter schools literally beg for space, it's nothing short of criminal. Shuttered since the 1990s, Langston, the adjacent Slater Elementary and Armstrong Technical school have all "seen various temporary uses (homeless shelter, storage) but now are completely empty
and prey to squatters and thieves," the league says. "All are only minimally secured."

The preservation league's efforts to find a way to at least shore up the three abandoned schools have been frustrated at every turn: As the league notes in its Endangered Places list, "Attempts to contact the Board of Education throughout the winter regarding these schools and their dilapidated condition went unanswered." Not a huge surprise, but still, appalling.

What should be done with lovely old structures that no one wants anymore is a very tough question. Sometimes there are creative ways to save portions of a building or to extend the building in some way that's attractive to a developer. But sometimes there really is nobody who wants to use the structure--and that's when the tension between preservation and reality can produce some mindboggling results. Check out last week's decision by the D.C. Preservation Review Board to prevent the owner of the Takoma Theatre from tearing down that lovely 1923 moviehouse.

As reported by the Northwest Current, the board voted unanimously to tell owner Milton McGinty that he has to keep the theater up even though he says he cannot turn a profit on it. It's not that he hasn't tried: In the 24 years that McGinty has owned the place, various attempts at showing movies and stage productions have come and gone, with little effect. McGinty is no rapacious developer; he says he bought the theater "to produce plays, to bring the races together."

But the board members had no sympathy for the owner's financial plight: "You pretty much own a white elephant," board member Denise Johnson told McGinty. She praised him for pumping money into the building, but said, as the Current put it, that the board cannot consider the economic impact of its rulings on property owners.

That's a pretty amazing statement, and it's at the core of why so many people in Washington and around the country panic at the notion that their property or neighborhood could be tagged as historic. McGinty says he will keep fighting for permission to tear down that white elephant.

By Marc Fisher |  June 6, 2007; 7:29 AM ET
Previous: Whose View Is It Anyway: Preserving The Point | Next: The New Nats Stadium: $300 Seats! (Or $5 Seats for the Same View)

Comments

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Re: the Family Dollar Store- The photo makes it appear as though much of the original structural facade and peaked roofline may remain intact, albeit under a tacky cladding. I don't know this to be the case but I've seen it in other places and, if it is so, than it may be that the owner has an architectural diamond hidden under a bestucco'd lump of coal. Just a thought.

Posted by: Mark | June 6, 2007 9:23 AM

I would welcome details on the Takoma Theater. I have heard that Mr. McGinty, under the false impression that nonprofit status meant he could not be fairly compensated, resisted using the advantages of this section of tax law to pursue his stated aims. If I had not heard this several times from unrelated sources over the past twenty years I would hesitate to post what amounts to an unverified rumor. Anybody know about this?

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 6, 2007 10:51 AM

Marc: I spent many a happy Saturday in my youth in the late 50's at the Sheridan, Takoma, and Kennedy theaters (you could see three movies for a quarter at the Kennedy).

I remember the Sheridan for it's maroon-colored ceramic urinals, toilets, and sinks, something I've not seen anywhere else since. Wonder if the Family Dollar store held on to them?

Re: the Takoma, you should query Milton McGinty's son Derek, of WUSA news.

Posted by: Old schooler | June 6, 2007 12:41 PM

Good post. I would include in the category of needless preservation the ugly shells of the old police callboxes that are still in various places around the city.

Posted by: Tom T. | June 6, 2007 12:48 PM

Where are Langston, Slater and Armstrong?

Posted by: David | June 6, 2007 1:13 PM

I'm not sure I get it. Sure, some of these buildings have true historic value, but I think a lot of folks are confusing the worlds "nostalgic" and "historic". I've done some preliminary research, and, unless I'm missing something, nothing truly "historic" has ever happened at the Takoma Theater. Add to that the fact that it appears to be nothing more than a nice-looking, but otherwise undistinguished (from an architectural standpoint), building, and I can't, for the life of me, understand why anyone thinks that there's any compelling reason to limit the owner's right to dispose of the property as he sees fit. Simply surviving for 80 years without having been knocked down doesn't make something an "historic treasure", it just makes it old. It's starting to feel like we're only a few steps away from imposing a "Willard Scott"-like rule for historic preservation, i.e. if it's been around for 100 years, make a big deal about it. C'mon folks, preservation, just for the sake of preservation, isn't the answer. And just because you "have great memories about seeing movies there when you were a kid" doesn't justify crippling a property owner's right to treat the property he or she paid fair value for in the way he or she sees fit.

Posted by: Confused | June 6, 2007 2:53 PM

Are people going completely nuts or has the Compost scraped the bottom of the barrel for stories. For instance, today's edition has a women spending $4,000 and expecting her cat to show up after being missing for 3 and a half years. Get over it, lady. He ain't comin' back. Then a woman vows undying love for a man who hired a thug to kill her but only blinded her. Now poor pitiful Paris Hilton is depressed and crying after spending only one night in jail. And I am just worried sick about Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Angelina Jolie. Where were these people when they handed out brains?

Holy Cow, people. There are far more important things in life to read about. Pick up a good book. Do volunteer work. Spend some time with your own kids. This drivel being written about in the Compost is a total waste of time. From now on I'm lining the cat box with this rag.

Posted by: Astounded | June 6, 2007 4:37 PM

The brick on the building has to be worth more than the land...I mean, who is actually capable of laying brick anymore?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 6, 2007 7:05 PM

When the owner of the building purchased it, it ws already a "contributing" structure in a historic district. There is no precedent for such a structure to be razed. He knew, or should have known what he was buying.

Posted by: to Confused | June 6, 2007 10:51 PM

Mr. Fisher,

Yet again you miss the whole point of activisim and saving historic structures that give Washington its character. Nice job! Looking forward to next years' bashing of a well meaning group that works very hard to retain what is good in this city.

You might try reaching out to this group and actually understanding what preservation is all about before you continue to speak ignorantly about the subject.

Posted by: Chris K. | June 7, 2007 2:04 PM

I find it curious and very one sided journalism that Mr. Fisher would quote only Mr. McGinty from the NW Current's article(s) on the Takoma Theatre. I was quoted too, offering other views from the community. The fact is that this is an exceedingly significant historical structure (designed by noted theatre architect John Zink, the first of his independent commissions and one of the very few that has its interior as well as exterior intact.)

Yes, it is beloved by the Takoma community, which nominated it to the DC Preservation League's Most Endangered Places List. Despite Mr. Fishers trashing, we feel that it can indeed be a viable theatre again, which is why we formed the Takoma Theatre Conservancy to raise the money to buy it. We also testified at the HPRB hearing and acknowledged Mr. McGinty's work in maintaining the theatre over the past 20 plus years. He is not the victim that Mr. Fisher describes. So his plays weren't well received. That's not a reason to say the theatre itself isn't worth saving.


We've talked to commercial developers, financial advisors and theatre experts, and they agree that the theatre needs a wide range of support -- financial, political, and social -- to be viable. It needs the kind of community outreach that we've been doing, not only to build community support generally but also to create the programs and audiences that will be essential to making the theatre financially as well as artistically successful.

That's what we intend to do. If anyone wants to help, you can go to our website: www.takomatheatredc.org

--Loretta Neumann, President, Takoma Theatre Conservancy


Posted by: Loretta Neumann | June 7, 2007 2:38 PM

In no way is the Takoma Theatre a white elephant. Various neighborhood based groups have been trying to buy the theater for years and Mr. McGinty refused to sell it. Only in April did he agree to even discuss selling it. The building is in very good condition considerign its age and is used regularly for performances. There is no marketing of the space and no professional management. The technology has not been updated. But it is a wonderful structure and could be well used by the community for a variety of performance and educational programs. Could he make more money if he tore it down and built condos? -- sure he could. We could also tear down the White House. But that isn't the point. Our cultural heritage and the existence of a theater in every community is much more important. Mr. McGinty should have known that when he bought a historic theater in a historic district. What was he thinking?
The Takoma Theatre Consevancy was formed by a group of concerned neighborhood residents to purchase the building as soon as he said he would sell it. We are currently searching for ways to fully compensate Mr. McGinty for his investment. We are grateful to him for being a caretaker but to say that it needs to be torn down is simply not true by any standard.

Posted by: Sharon Villines | June 7, 2007 3:05 PM

There is another side to this story. The fact that Mr. McGinty has not been able to turn a profit on the Takoma Theater has nothing to do with it being an Historic Structure and more to do with his ability to run a theater. We were very excited when he bought the place and advertised his productions. He produced plays that he had written- we went. They were poorly written and not well performed. And of course not well attended.

Several theater groups have tried over the years to work out an arrangement with him to lease the theater to no avail. It has not been proven to me that the building can no longer function as a viable theater. If and when an experienced management is unable to make the theater viable then another use will have to be made of the building.

A long term Takoma resident.

Posted by: Alice | June 7, 2007 3:07 PM

There is another side to this story. The fact that Mr. McGinty has not been able to turn a profit on the Takoma Theater has nothing to do with it being an Historic Structure and more to do with his ability to run a theater. We were very excited when he bought the place and advertised his productions. He produced plays that he had written- we went. They were poorly written and not well performed. And of course not well attended.

Several theater groups have tried over the years to work out an arrangement with him to lease the theater to no avail. It has not been proven to me that the building can no longer function as a viable theater. If and when an experienced management is unable to make the theater viable then another use will have to be made of the building.

A long term Takoma resident.

Posted by: Alice | June 7, 2007 3:07 PM

There is another side to this story. The fact that Mr. McGinty has not been able to turn a profit on the Takoma Theater has nothing to do with it being an Historic Structure and more to do with his ability to run a theater. We were very excited when he bought the place and advertised his productions. He produced plays that he had written- we went. They were poorly written and not well performed. And of course not well attended.

Several theater groups have tried over the years to work out an arrangement with him to lease the theater to no avail. It has not been proven to me that the building can no longer function as a viable theater. If and when an experienced management is unable to make the theater viable then another use will have to be made of the building.

A long term Takoma resident.

Posted by: Alice | June 7, 2007 3:07 PM

Mr Fisher-
I was at the DC Preservation Review Board meeting in question. Had you been, you would not have had to rely on third-hand accounts to form your opinion piece. At this meeting, Mr. McGinty singled out the Washington Post and its steadfast refusal to give his plays at the Takoma any review or publicity as a prime reason for his not achieving his dream of reviving the theater as a live venue. Is there a little payback here, perhaps? Trying to atone for past sins, maybe?
The Takoma and its cousins are historic, and endangered, precisely because they illustrate how DC's neighborhoods formed and lived. There were no mall megaplexes. You actually knew who you were sitting next to. You could walk to the theater, catch the newsreel, see the show, and walk home with your neighbors. And if you're interested in community-building (as we are, here in Old Takoma), I don't think that's such a bad model, even today. So why not let the citizens lead, and bring real, live entertainment and community back to the city, where it belongs?
The free market didn't guarantee a profit to Mr. McGinty, when he bought the Takoma. It only guaranteed opportunity. It didn't pan out for him. Maybe it will for the Conservancy. Mr. McGinty should let them have a shot. For the community.

Posted by: J. Hume | June 7, 2007 5:02 PM

Sorry to see you take such a negative stance on DCPL efforts to preserve DC's rich architectural heritage. I am especially sorry to see the attack on preserving the Takoma Theatre. Built by Baltimore theater architect John J. Zink, who also built the Uptown in DC and the Senator in Baltimore, The Takoma is the only Zink theater remaining with the interior essentially intact and the neon roof sign still on the roof. It's an important icon not just for Takoma and DC heritage, but also for the theater heritage of the nation.

The Takoma Theatre Conservancy wants to buy the building from the current owner in order to preserve the building and revitalize it as a community and regional arts venue. This proposal is win-win for everyone, and the Conservancy is going about it with professionalism, dignity, and respect. If the building is such a disappointing financial burden for the current owner, why not sell it to a group that loves it and is prepared to work to save it? If he wants to see the theatre as a venue that will bring people together, why has he torpedoed every effort to run it as a commercial and cultural operation in the past?

It's a sad day when nothing is valued in our society save profit and how large it might be. Shame on you.

Posted by: --Sabrina Baron, president, Historic Takoma, Inc. | June 7, 2007 6:45 PM

I have lived in D.C. all my life and in my 63 years, have seen beautiful old buildings left empty to rot, crumble and not ever thought of again. D.C. has some beautiful old buildings and housing that should be taken care of immediately. But, I find that those who run things in this city waste time, money and energy doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. What a shame.

Posted by: Martha Bishop | June 8, 2007 8:48 AM

Mr. Fisher:

I heartily disagree with your assessment of the Takoma Theatre. I live in Takoma DC and have seen seveeral productions put on there which were wonderful. It is an asset which with the proper vision and developer could be a boon to the local community.

The Historic Review Board has acted appropriately according to the wishes of residents and business leaders in the surrounding community of Takoma DC and Takoma Park Md.

Posted by: Pennye JN | June 8, 2007 8:57 AM

Mr. McGinty's history with the theatre may shed some light on the issue. He purchased the theatre with the intent of using it as a theatre. During the years that I was involved with the theatre he resisted making even minor changes to the interior because he wanted to preserve its unique character. Maintenance was mostly limited to repairs while only the A/C system was upgraded.

Yes, just as he paid a fair market price for this historic theatre he should receive one now. But, if preservation was his intent then why demolish it and seek a developer's price now?

Posted by: Mau VanDuren, former president of TTAP | June 8, 2007 11:06 AM

Maybe you missed the point Mr. Fisher that all the neighborhoods listed were nominated by groups in those neighborhoods. We feel that our neighborhood is significant but that significance could be ruined by continued ill-advised alterations and demolition of significant structures.

Posted by: Hill East Resident | June 8, 2007 11:21 AM

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