When historic preservation interferes with modern preferences
By John Kelly,
To most eyes, a chain-link fence in the front yard does not scream curb appeal. Simple — but not what you’d call “elegantly simple” — it’s what a set decorator might prescribe when he wants to conjure up mean streets. A white picket fence it ain’t.
Which is why some homeowners in Old Town Alexandria were surprised to learn recently that their chain-link fences were historic and that removing them could put them in hot water with the city’s historic preservation office.
Anita Hall grew up in the Buchanan Street rowhouse her parents bought in 1963. It’s in the city’s Parker-Gray neighborhood, hard by the Metro tracks. After her parents’ deaths she bought the house from her siblings and set about sprucing it up. Her nephew, Dallas Hall, runs a contracting business. Three months ago, he pulled out the old chain-link fence and put in a black aluminum fence, its narrow posts topped with arrowhead-shaped details.
“It looks better than a chain-link fence, and the chain-link fence was falling down,” Anita said.
Dallas hadn’t gotten planning permission — “I didn’t even know this section was deemed historic,” he told me — but he did approach the city’s zoning folks with a question about replacing a stockade fence at the back of the property. When they came out to take a look at that, they noticed the chain-link fence was gone.
“They asked me, ‘Where is that fence? Can you recover any of that fence?’ ” Dallas said. They wanted him to reinstall it, which would have been hard. He’d given it to some friends to sell for scrap.
As the historic preservation staff wrote in its recommendation: “While many feel that [chain-link] fences have negative connotations, this material has played an important role in the development of mid-century vernacular housing and their cultural landscape. . . . By eradicating this ‘simple fencing solution,’ the applicant would be removing an important contextual clue to the original occupants of this neighborhood.”
Who were those original occupants? Working-class folk, some white, some black. Over time, the neighborhood became predominantly African American. Longtime residents marvel at what some of the houses are now going for; $500,000 isn’t uncommon.
“I think those are interesting houses,” said Al Cox, historic preservation manager in Alexandria’s Department of Planning and Zoning. They are relatively unadorned, two-story brick houses built right after World War II. They represent a side of Alexandria that’s different from the Federal, Georgian and Greek Revival homes closer to the river.
Charles Hall has been helping his sister with the red tape. He said he understands the need for zoning rules. “You cannot have everybody in the city doing what they want,” he said. “You’d have chaos.” But many of the chain-link fences of Parker-Gray have been replaced over the years, some with fences similar to the one Anita installed.
What it seems to boil down to is this: Does keeping a house historically accurate mean keeping it dinky and plain, when people no longer want dinky and plain? As people’s tastes and means change, can’t they reflect that in their homes?
That’s a valid argument, Al said, but one that is “at odds with the whole definition of historic preservation, which tries to take a neighborhood or a building and say: This is a great snapshot of what the city was like in this period. This is how people lived. They didn’t all live in mansions.”
Charles isn’t convinced by that argument. He observed that when the public housing projects in Alexandria were torn down, the townhouses built in their place didn’t look anything like the projects. Weren’t the projects, in their own way, historic?
Anita was told she could keep her new fence, but the issue isn’t over. Though the replacement fence stands where the old one was, it encroaches on the public right of way. The city council may decide she needs to move it back from the sidewalk. If so, Anita will have to replace it with something less ornate, such as a crimped wire or double-loop fence. Last month, a homeowner around the corner, on Princess Street, lost his bid to remove the chain-link fence from his property.
It’s inevitable that every year more things will become “historic” and communities will have to wrestle with what that means. Al said that over the next six months his office will work with the neighborhood to come up with some guidelines. Perhaps they’ll decide that just one or two sets of 1940s townhouses are worthy of preservation and celebration. “People who like that style can move there and appreciate them,” he said.
Those who don’t can move down the street and put in whatever kind of fences they like.