In D.C. neighborhood, an epic battle over an eyesore of historical proportions

Correction: An earlier version of this article about a vacant property in the Wesley Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington misstated the age of one of its owners. James Walton Magee is 67, not 53. The article also incorrectly said that he lives alone. He lives with his sister Virginia Carre Magee, with whom he owns the property. This version has been corrected.


James Walton Magee’s two-story house on Klingle Street NW “clearly has deep sentimental value to him,” says Grace Guggenheim, whose parents were Magee’s neighbors for 40 years. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 5, 2011

James Walton Magee can barely hide his disgust as he stands in the alley behind the colonial home in the posh District neighborhood where he was born.

There’s the rotted fence a few houses down that looks as if it is about to collapse; the unsightly cinder-block wall his next-door neighbor put in; and on the other side of him, the massive deck-and-carport configuration that takes up the entire back yard.

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.

The house on Klingle Street “clearly has deep sentimental value to him,” says Guggenheim, who now lives in another part of the city. “I feel for the guy. He’s within his right to do what he can do.”

Arriving for a recent daily check of his property, Magee looks as if he is headed to lunch at the Four Seasons, not to pluck empty soda cans from the front yard of a vacant house. He wears a light-colored blazer over pressed slacks and dress shoes. His white hair is mostly hidden beneath a fedora that appears to be custom-made.

He lives with his sister Virginia close by in a bright, sparsely furnished apartment. There’s not a trace of dust. No kicked-off shoes. No tiny lumps of soap stuck to the bathroom soap dish. It is as immaculate as the house on Klingle Street is slovenly.

Bungling by city agencies

Magee and his sister began renovating the house in 2001 to make it more comfortable for their ailing mother. They left it clad first in a tarp and then in tar paper for years because they were trying to collect more than $100,000 from a contractor they claim botched work on the house. They eventually recouped $90,000. (The contractor says he doesn’t remember the job.)

Another reason the house sat unfixed was bungling by city agencies, says David Toland, a former mayoral aide to Anthony A. Williams. Without the house in livable condition, the city condemned it in 2008, setting off a series of problems including possible foreclosure. Magee says the stress was too much for his mother, who died that winter. Last year, Magee and his sister persuaded city officials to give them another chance to make repairs and cancel the condemnation.

Some neighbors say the city has been too lenient. “The point of the vacant-property law is to create incentives to fix property or sell it to someone who will,” says Andrew Heimert, a lawyer who lives down the street from the Magee house.

Pressure on politicians

Dropping the family’s name has helped Magee persuade aides to Williams and his successors, Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent C. Gray, to intervene with officials at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is tasked with policing vacant and blighted buildings.

Not to be outdone, his neighbors have also put pressure on bureaucrats, phoning and sending letters. Some city officials say they think both sides are simply using them as proxies in their own battles.

When a neighbor saw water coming down the alley behind Magee’s house a couple of years ago, she asked D.C. Water to shut his water off. With the mercury in the teens, the pipes burst and flooded the house. Several other neighbors said they suspect Magee of calling the police over a cello recital and even an indoor light left on at night. One call to DCRA last fall cost a neighbor thousands of dollars in fines over a renovations permit.

Magee says he didn’t make these calls. But his neighbors remain wary.

“The neighborhood is concerned because [the house] is kind of a blight,” said Rich Bloch, a lawyer and motivational speaker who has lived behind the Magee house for more than 30 years. “But it’s kind of a blessing he’s gone.”

Magee hasn’t worked in a decade. (He subsists on money from a family trust.) This is all he does now. Call the Wilson Building. Police his property every day.

In the back yard, he empties standing water from some garbage cans strewn haphazardly about and then lines them up perfectly in a row.

He must preserve the house, he says.

But for how long?

Magee says he and his sister have burned through savings and may soon have no choice but to sell.

He does not want to forsake Klingle Street, even though the neighborhood of his childhood — a place where “people were modest and behaved modestly” — is long gone. He says the place is less friendly now.

Sitting in his clean, bright apartment, surrounded by family heirlooms and photos, he decries what Wesley Heights and Washington have become: a place of vulgarians and interlopers who “build walls around themselves and hedges and don’t want to know anybody.”

“If they want to live that way, fine,” he says. “They should go live in Potomac.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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