Trying to salvage K Street’s old grandeur

Columnist May 14, 2012

There was a time in Washington when if you’d mentioned “K Street” in conversation, people wouldn’t have automatically assumed you were talking about lobbyists or the squat, glassy offices that line the aforementioned boulevard.

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

If you had said “K Street” in 1870 or 1910, folks would have assumed you were talking about a place where people lived — and lived well. If you had an address on K Street 100 years ago, you were probably in a grand mansion.

Of course, it’s hard to get a sense of that now, so good are we at “out with the old and in with the new.” But there remains a vestige. Go to 11th and K NW and gaze at the northeast corner. Subtract the huge billboard that wraps around the three-story, red-brick buildings. Deduct the ivy that has taken hold of the roof. Mentally repair the general air of dilapidation.

Got that? Now imagine block after block of K Street looking that way.

Buildings at 11th and K streets NW date to the 1870s. They're the last remaining examples of the houses that once lined K Street. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“These properties are all that’s left of old K Street,” Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL), told me.

In 2008, Rebecca filed an application with the District to have the circa 1875 buildings made historic landmarks. The ones on the corner are in Second Empire style, with interesting cornices, moldings and bay windows. Most pleasing is the campanile, or bell tower, that peeks over the billboard.

In her application, Rebecca outlined the buildings’ histories and some of their more interesting residents, including William H. Burr, a stenographer for the precursor to the Congressional Record.

Burr is best known for his anonymously published 1860 book, “Self-Contradictions of the Bible,” in which he basically played the word of God against itself, juxtaposing, for example, Bible passages in which God approves of burnt offerings with those in which God disapproves of burnt offerings. (Make up your mind, God.)

The application has been working its way through the system for the past four years. Local bloggers such as Peter Sefton of Victorian Secrets, John DeFerrari of Streets of Washington and Cary Silverman of the Other 35 Percent have written about the buildings and their moldering state.

In March, City Paper development columnist Lydia DePillis discovered that the city was taxing the property at the standard commercial tax rate, not at the higher vacant rate or the even higher rate for “blighted” properties.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs decided that the properties are blighted, a ruling that is meant to be a kick in the pants to developers. In April, owner Douglas Development filed a request to raze the buildings. That request prompts an automatic review, and now the DCPL’s 2008 application goes to the top of the pile.

I asked Douglas Jemal, Douglas Development’s owner, whether he thought the buildings were worth saving. “Candidly, it’s really up to the Historic Preservation Review Board,” he said. “If they feel it’s historically significant, it’s fine.”

Rebecca would like to see the buildings’ exteriors restored to their previous grandeur. It may be too late for the interiors. She toured the site last week and found the insides pretty far gone.

Why bother to save them? “I think it’s important that people recognize the development of the city,” Rebecca said. “It’s part of our history. Seeing a building in person is a lot different than seeing it in a book.”

The Historic Preservation Review Board will consider the application at its June 28 meeting. Here’s hoping it can help us remember a time when “K Street” wasn’t an epithet.

Tough medicine

How about that Bryce Harper? The hard-charging Nationals rookie has taken baseball by storm.

Steve Murfin isn’t surprised. Steve coaches the baseball team at Blake High in Silver Spring. He’s a player himself, and in 2007 was in Nevada for an over-50s tournament. Steve arrived about an hour early for a game at Las Vegas High and saw the school’s team practicing.

“I was particularly interested in one of the drills one player was doing,” Steve said. A coach was tossing five-pound medicine balls at the kid. “This one particular player was hitting them pretty far — like about 50 yards.”

A coach walked up to Steve and said: “See that kid right there. Remember his name. He will be the greatest player in baseball history.”

Steve chuckled — he knows how coaches exaggerate — and asked where the teenager was going to college.

The coach said: “He is 15 years old and a freshman. Name’s Bryce Harper.”

I asked Steve if he’s instituted the medicine ball drill at Blake. “We’ve tried it,” he said. “Only certain kids can do it. It’s not real good for the forearms of a young boy.”

My arms hurt just thinking about it.

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly .

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