To him, it’s all “suburban dreck.”
As one of the few fourth-generation residents in Wesley Heights, a leafy enclave next to Battery Kemble Park, Magee takes such aesthetic affronts personally. And many of his neighbors concede that there is an eyesore in their midst. But the problem is not on their properties, they say: It is the vacant, crumbling house that Magee owns.
The house is among the more than 1,500 vacant properties in the District, many of which are lucky to get a once-over from the neighborhood patrolman. But in Wesley Heights, where home prices hover in the seven figures, the Magee house is at the center of an epic feud between Magee and his neighbors that has drawn the attention of three mayoral administrations, two D.C. Council members, the water utility, the police and every level of the city’s building code enforcement bureaucracy.
From the street, the two-story house on Klingle Street NW, built in the 1920s, looks presentable enough, thanks to some new siding. But turn a corner and its true condition becomes obvious: Siding gives way to tar paper, windows covered with garbage bags and a pile of rubble at the foot of an unfinished stairway. Inside, a black line runs along the wall where water from burst pipes stopped. The smell of mildew is strong.
Nearby residents, by turns mystified, annoyed and furious, just wish Magee — and his campaign to keep his house — would go away. Magee could sell the place — and admits he needs the money — but he doesn’t want to.
“It’s home,” says the 67-year-old freelance art curator. “Places define part of you, and when you find yourself without family, the context becomes important.”
A storied family tree
The story starts at a time when Calvin Coolidge was president and the District’s population had yet to crack 500,000. Wesley Heights was practically rural. And it was close-knit, so long as you were the Right Kind of people. Deed covenants excluded black and Jewish homeowners.
Magee’s late mother, Virginia Walton Magee, belonged to a prominent Washington family, one of the first to settle in the new development. He recounts tales about various parts of the house that were remnants of a storied family tree: a crepe myrtle originally propagated in 18th-century France, a staircase from a family home in Annapolis, a table that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
“He acts very aristocratic,” says Grace Guggenheim, a film producer whose parents were Magee’s neighbors for 40 years. “He has a whole family history no one really understands.”
To her, Magee feels like a character from “Grey Gardens,” a 1975 documentary and recent HBO movie of the same title about two of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s relatives who lived out their lives in a once fabulous but decaying family mansion on Long Island.