Chevy Chase residents call on developer to give century-old house new life

Its gutters are rusted, its facade cracked, its garage lopsided, but Gary Tavenner used to dream of fixing up the house where an elderly lady lived at 3823 Morrison St. NW in Chevy Chase, a few blocks from his own house in the District.

“I would absolutely have bought it with a couple of friends,” he said. “I’d have restored it.”

Many other people had that idea, too — the 100-year-old wood and stucco arts-and-crafts house, just off Connecticut Avenue, stands beside a nearly identical one that has been rehabilitated into a stately manse and, to some, offers a vision of what the distressed one could be.

But in November, several months after the owner — who was also 100 — died, her family sold the house for $825,000 to a developer who had other plans, neighbors say.

According to an application for a permit filed with the District that month, the owner, Robert Holman, requested permission to raze the building. Neighbors say that Holman said at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in January that he plans to replace the 2,890-square-foot house with a 5,500-square-foot one.

Since the neighborhood is not a designated historic district and nobody filed a landmark nomination on the property, which could have delayed demolition, Holman is allowed to move forward. The ANC voted 5 to 2 not to object to the raze permit.

Still, some hope to change Holman’s mind.

On Saturday, Mary Rowse, a resident who is leading an effort to save the house, stood in front of it with a handful of others, holding signs and asking passersby to sign a letter requesting that Holman restore the house.

Several readily agreed. “I just think it should not be torn down,” said Susan Dichter, who lives three blocks away, adding that she was concerned with what would replace it. “The way things get built these days, they become more cookie-cutter and hideous, so relatively speaking, past houses are much more attractive.”

Rowse said Holman had told her the house was structurally unsound but that he had not produced any evidence of this. She also said that he has said he would sell it for $1 million but has not shown the house. Holman did not respond to phone or e-mail messages Saturday afternoon.

Passersby expressed sorrow at the prospect of seeing one of the neighborhood’s oldest homes leveled. If it is, it will be the latest old structure to be demolished in the city’s construction boom.

“There’s so much you lose when you don’t keep the craftsmanship — the quality of construction, the quality of materials,” said Ellen Ward, who signed the petition. “You can kind of recreate that, but most developers don’t do that.”

It is hard to know what restoration would cost, because Rowse said Holman has not let interested parties inside.

Steve Trauben, who moved into an adjacent house 12 years ago, said he had been inside 3823 Morrison while the last owner was alive. “It’s awful,” he said. “The ceiling was caving in in multiple places, there was a hole in the floor. . . . I don’t know if there was any heat in the house.”

John Ray Hoke Jr., a retired architect who lives nearby and whose grandfather helped develop the neighborhood a century ago, said he thought the house could be salvaged.

“We believe in this house because this was one of the original houses,” he said.

Reid Butterfield, a real estate agent, pulled up in his car. Butterfield said he had had his eye on the house for years and had written to the previous owner’s family inquiring if they would sell but had never gotten a reply.

Butterfield said he thought it would cost more to restore the house than to replace it, and that a new house would probably sell for more than a restored historic one.

Although he said he sympathized with the protesters, he added, “What about property rights? He bought it; it’s his.”

Trauben agreed, adding, “This is not big brother.”

By the end of the afternoon, Rowse had 160 signatures calling for the house to be saved. But standing out front, some feared they were too late. They pointed at dangling power lines that they said had been recently cut, apparently in preparation for demolition.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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