The D.C. Preservation League, originally named Don’t Tear It Down, has helped save from the wrecking ball countless historic structures in the nation’s capital. Now marking its 40th anniversary, DCPL has been relentlessly zealous. But it has done much to sensitize Washington’s residents, businesses and government officials to the value of preserving the city’s architectural landmarks and design heritage.
Such sensitivity had to be learned, because a few decades ago Washingtonians were not so attuned to preservation. In the 1950s and ’60s, the ethos and culture of planning, architecture, and urban development and redevelopment differed greatly from that of today. In architecture schools in the 1960s, no one talked about “historic preservation.” The country was preoccupied with slum clearance and urban renewal, with an emphasis on “new.” Designers and their clients looked to the future, not the past. Invention and innovation, not restoration and preservation, were the goals.
Attitudes began to shift in the 1960s as notable American buildings were being routinely knocked down, most famously New York City’s magnificent Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead & White and built in 1910. Entire city neighborhoods, including much of Southwest D.C., were being razed. Some realized that if demolition continued unchecked, the day would come when the nation’s architectural legacy could disappear and be forgotten. People also perceived that much newly built, International-style architecture in the 1950s and 1960s was less than aesthetically lovable, especially in contrast to what wrecking balls were demolishing.
The prospect of a wrecking ball catalyzed the creation of Don’t Tear It Down, first established to oppose the planned demolition in 1971 of Washington’s Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, designed in the late 19th century by Willoughby J. Edbrooke. Federal officialdom considered the Romanesque-style stone edifice functionally obsolete and saw it as an anachronistic impediment to completion of the neoclassically styled Federal Triangle, designed and constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.
Don’t Tear It Down mobilized preservation-minded volunteers and, during the nation’s second annual Earth Week, in April 1971, a march culminated in a rally at the Old Post Office building and garnered substantial publicity. Ensuing hearings on Capitol Hill, plus persistent advocacy by preservationists, ultimately persuaded the federal government to save the building. Subsequently, during those formative years of the preservation movement, Don’t Tear It Down helped save other buildings such as the Willard Hotel and the Franklin School.
In the early 1970s, if zealous preservation advocacy wasn’t sufficient, litigation was an option, if only to buy time. But litigation was costly. Instead, under D.C. law then in effect, nominating and obtaining designation of structures as historic landmarks could buy time, but keeping the wrecking ball at bay remained a challenge, especially in the face of new, economically beneficial real estate development.