A new twist on old places: Winners of preservation contest announced

Columnist May 13, 2013

God works in mysterious ways. On the one hand, His earthquake shook little bits off of Washington National Cathedral. On the other, He allowed the gothic-style house of worship to take top honors in the Partners in Preservation fundraising contest and win $100,000 from American Express to repair some of the seismic damage He had wrought.

The Lord taketh away, and the Lord giveth.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

For weeks, 24 historic sites in the District, Maryland and Virginia have been competing for Facebook likes, tweets, FourSquare check-ins and Instagram tags. The results of the competition were announced Monday morning at Decatur House, a historic property in its own right.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” said National Park Service ranger Joy Kinard, who oversees the Carter G. Woodson Home in Shaw.

“It was worse than Christmas Eve as a kid,” said Mike Henry of Colvin Run Mill.

“At 10 [on the night voting closed], I just shut my computer off and said, ‘It’s over,’ ” said Celia Craze of the Greenbelt Theatre.

Monday turned out to be a happy day for them. In addition to the cathedral, 12 entrants were awarded funds by a panel of experts. Among them were the Woodson House ($75,000 to rebuild the facade), Colvin Run Mill ($75,000 to repair the grain elevator) and the Greenbelt Theatre ($75,000 to restore the art deco lobby).

Other winners: All Souls Unitarian Church ($50,000 to repair the historic bell tower), Congressional Cemetery ($50,000 to reconstruct mausoleum vault roofs), Dumbarton Oaks Park ($50,000 to repair original garden structures), GALA Hispanic Theatre ($35,000 to restore three ornate domes), LAMB at Military Road School ($60,000 to repair columns and the cupola), Meridian Hill Park ($50,000 to repair an exposed aggregate concrete grotto), Metropolitan AME Church ($90,000 to restore stained-glass windows), Mount Vernon ($100,000 to restore the large dining room) and the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue ($75,000 to repair stained-glass windows).

The other 11 entrants each received $5,000: the Abner Cloud House on the C&O Canal, Arlington House, the Athenaeum, Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, the Darby Store, the George Mason Memorial, the Heyden Observatory, the Kennel at Aspin Hill Memorial Park, Living Classrooms of the National Capital Area (an outfit that takes schoolchildren out on the river), the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

Living Classrooms, Arlington House and the LAMB school each received an additional $20,000 for the high percentage of votes that came from various social media.

Social media were the only way people could vote in the contest, which was co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That distressed Alexandria reader Carol Cooke, who wrote to me that she found it “ironic that an organization whose mission is to prevent the destruction of the past in the name of what is ‘new’ would so cavalierly dismiss the value and input of those of us who linger a little longer in the past.”

Last week, I asked the trust’s president, Stephanie Meeks, about that. “The National Trust and organizations that represent the sites in this year’s competition are in an interesting place,” she said. “We’re working hard to continue to communicate and cultivate a traditional base, but that base is getting older. We have to be testing new tools and strategies for bringing membership along.”

Americans in the 25-to-35-year-old range have not developed strong associations with nonprofits, Stephanie said. “We see Partners in Preservation and social media as one of the ways of being able to reach out to that group. We’re trying to keep a foot in both camps.”

Joy said that during the contest, Facebook likes for the Woodson House went from five to 2,000, coming from as far away as Italy and South Africa. Her hope is that they can be converted into something more tangible, such as financial donations.

Even if you didn’t vote — even if you don’t donate money — why not resolve to take the time this summer to visit some of the lesser-known of these two-dozen historic places? It’s easy to forget the Greenbelt Theatre in an area that has Ford’s Theatre. It’s easy to bypass the National Museum of Women in the Arts in a town that has the National Gallery of Art. Our area is full of hidden gems that should be hidden no more.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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