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A local life: Dick Wolf, 79, fought for preservation on Capitol Hill

By Bart Barnes,

In the 1970s, there was a dilapidated building in the 500 block of East Capitol Street that had seen better days. It was old, with cracked windows, broken shutters and peeling paint. Mortar between the bricks was dry and crumbling. On the first floor was a neighborhood restaurant known as Mary’s Blue Room, which had closed because of a fire in its kitchen and then reopened.

When the building faced demolition in the name of neighborhood progress and improvement, a band of neighbors protested in the name of historic preservation. Among them was a young community activist named Dick Wolf.

This was not Mr. Wolf’s first venture into the crucible of city and community affairs, nor would it be his last. Mary’s Blue Room did fall to the wrecking ball, but other old buildings in the block escaped a similar fate. Over the next four decades, Mr. Wolf would become influential in the enactment of laws and regulations that would help preserve and protect old buildings — even deteriorating and run-down ones like Mary’s Blue Room.

He would also assist in the lawsuit that gave the city legal authority to issue residential parking permits, help bring about the commercial revitalization of Eighth Street SE, help preserve Eastern Market and rebuild it after the 2007 fire and aid in the development of a mixed-income housing community north of the Southeast Freeway at Sixth Street SE.

He would fight with Pepco over the size of electricity meter boxes on houses and with the Postal Service over house-to-house mail delivery. He would serve two terms as president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and win the Community Achievement Award of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.

“Dick Wolf’s imprint is all over Capitol Hill, and many residents think of him as the neighborhood mayor,” said Dorn McGrath, former chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy organization that has existed since the 1920s. In 2009, the Committee of 100 gave Mr. Wolf its Lifetime Achievement Award.

On May 27, Mr. Wolf died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications related to pancreatic cancer. He was 79. His death was confirmed by his wife, Muriel D. Wolf.

Richard Noel Wolf was born Jan. 10, 1933, in Chicago. He was the first of three children in his biological family, and he was given up for adoption when he was 30 days old. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., knowing that he had been adopted but not knowing that he had biological siblings. Not until more than 50 years later, after his sister tracked him down, did he meet his biological sister and brother.

Mr. Wolf graduated from the University of Michigan in 1954 and from Yale Law School in 1957. He came to Washington as a lawyer for the Civil Rights Commission in the final years of the Eisenhower administration. In 1961 he transferred to NASA, where he served in the legal department until retiring in 1998.

In 1964, Mr. Wolf moved to Capitol Hill, and for the next 48 years he lived in the same rowhouse near Lincoln Park. He began his second career in community activism by protesting what he saw as the liberal granting of liquor licenses to organizations that claimed to be clubs. His advocacy would evolve into issues of planning, land use, historic preservation and such subjective questions as the quality of life in urban neighborhoods.

Mr. Wolf was not regularly mentioned in newspaper headlines or on television. He did the nitty-gritty work of arguing with bureaucrats and legislative staffers. He cajoled and pleaded, bullied and browbeat. And he was relentless.

David Perry, who worked with him on the planned community near the Southeast Freeway, recalled Mr. Wolf’s response when the Postal Service announced it would not have house-to-house mail delivery in the new community. Instead, there would be a single set of mailboxes at one central location.

“He was outraged,” Perry said, recalling that Mr. Wolf called the Postal Service to complain and, through sheer chutzpah, got through to the postmaster general. A short time later, the decision was reversed.

In a 2007 interview with Megan Rosenfeld for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, Mr. Wolf described his work as a community activist: “You figure out what you need to do. You do your own research. You testify before the City Council, or you get yourself on various boards and commissions, help write reports. It’s a do-it-yourself enterprise.”

In his neighborhood, Mr. Wolf was known as a talker. He talked to friends on the street, at restaurants, in coffee shops, at Eastern Market. Walking home from work, he often stopped by at the home of Capitol Hill’s former City Council member, Sharon Am­brose, for a few minutes of conversation.

“My children always knew dinner would be late whenever Mr. Wolf stopped by,” Ambrose said.

Mr. Wolf’s survivors include his wife of 53 years, Muriel DuBrow Wolf of the District; two daughters, Anne A. Wolf of Boston and Jennifer W. Nemerson of Northbrook, Ill.; two sisters; and two grandchildren.

At a memorial service May 30, a colleague from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, Nancy Metzger, recalled an encounter on the street a day or so after Mr. Wolf had retired from NASA.

He was unloading boxes from his car, Metzger said. “He straightened up and said, with a grin and zest in his eyes, ‘Now I can be a full-time pain in the butt.’ ”

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