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Why One Building Lost Its Character While Another Didn't

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A15

Preservationists who support facade easements like to point to a single block in downtown Washington and tell a tale of two buildings.

The Romanesque-style National Union Building stands in the 900 block of F Street NW, much as it has since it was completed in the 1890s. It is protected under D.C. preservation laws and a facade easement held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington-based nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1949.

_____Rich With History_____
facade thumbnail Interactive: How historic easements work and who profits from them.
Graphic: The number of property owners applying to have their home or commercial building certified as contributing to a designated historical district has increased dramatically.
Map: Washington is the nation's leading city for historic facade easements, with easements protecting about 960 properties, many clustered in upscale neighborhoods.
Loophole Pays Off on Upscale Buildings (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Panel Advises Ending Tax Breaks for Easements (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2005)
Senators Vow to End Tax Break on Easements (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2004)
Tax Break Turns Into Big Business (The Washington Post, Dec 13, 2004)
Local Laws Already Bar Alterations (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
As Word Spreads, Clamor to Donate Grows (The Washington Post, Dec 13, 2004)

Next door was once the site of the Atlantic Building, completed in 1888. That eight-story Romanesque structure boasted numerous fireplaces, a grand staircase and -- remarkable for the time -- an elevator.

The Atlantic Building had no easement but was protected under District law until 1989, when the owner convinced D.C. officials there was a pressing need for a retail corridor in the then-depressed neighborhood, according to an account prepared by the National Trust.

After granting a "special merit exception," the District authorized demolition of all but the front facade. Demolition finally took place in 2000, with plans to graft the facade onto a new "backdrop" building.

Preservationists use a derisive phrase for the process: "facade-ectomy."

If previous owners had donated an easement that protected all walls of the building, the trust could have gone to court to block demolition, said Paul Edmondson, general counsel of the National Trust.

"Washington has a strong tradition of preservation, and the laws are good," Edmondson said. "But they are not necessarily perfect. No law is. There have been many controversies over the years over properties being demolished."

The National Union Building easement differs from many in the flood of new easements in Washington and elsewhere. Many of those easements are on buildings that are residential, not commercial. Some of the new easements protect only the portion of the front of the building visible from across the street, rather than all the walls. Most of the new easements are held by nonprofits that are smaller or newer than the National Trust.

Even so, Edmondson said, residential facade easements and the associated tax write-offs can be powerful tools when used responsibly.

"We're not all charlatans," said Gordon Kerr, an easement processor who works exclusively with the L'Enfant Trust. "I think this is real value added for the preservation cause."

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