Development Could Erode Local History
Preservationists List Sites at Risk
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page DZ03
A grand but long-abandoned downtown schoolhouse, one of the country's smallest military cemeteries and three soon-to-be redeveloped riverfront neighborhoods are among the District's most threatened historically significant sites, according to a local preservation group.
The D.C. Preservation League recently released its ninth annual list of buildings and places that the organization's board of trustees believes are at risk of being destroyed, either though neglect or new development.
The sites span the length and breadth of the city, and range from 32 to 250 years old. There are easily recognized buildings such as the handsome brick Franklin School, at 13th and K streets NW, and lesser-known treasures like Battleground National Cemetery, a one-acre park off Georgia Avenue NW that was dedicated by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and contains the remains of 41 Union soldiers killed in the battle of Fort Stevens -- the closest the Civil War came to the White House.
The list, modeled after a similar effort by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is an attempt to draw public attention to the importance of the sites so they will be preserved, said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the preservation league. There are six sites on the "most endangered" list, and five more on a "watch list," where the jeopardy is deemed less imminent.
"Some of them people see every day," Miller said. "And others . . . people sometimes don't even know they are in their communities."
The biggest threat cited in the report is the development boom washing over the city. Preservationists said they fear that the city's effort to revitalize land on either side of the Anacostia River and Washington Channel could destroy the unique character of the 19th-century rowhouses and storefronts in downtown Anacostia, the World War II-era housing and century-old industrial buildings of the South Capitol Street corridor and the 1960s urban renewal landscape of Southwest Washington.
A proposed baseball stadium built over the freeway in Southwest would essentially erase Benjamin Banneker Park, which was designed by landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley in 1970.
Developers have expressed strong interest building luxury housing at the Franklin School or at the idyllic Tregaron Estate in Northwest's Cleveland Park neighborhood.
In the city center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 9th and G NW and the old Uline Arena at 3rd and M NE are both considered vulnerable because they are on prime sites for new office construction.
"We're just fighting to save some of it," said Ron McBee, a 32-year resident of Southwest Washington who said he is dismayed that the low-density architecture in his neighborhood is now looked on with disdain.
"They've fallen out of style," McBee said of the understated buildings and parks. "The problem is, [when they're gone], there won't be any history left for us to look at."
In struggling downtown Anacostia, which is on the endangered list for the third time since 1999, the threat to the historic district is doubled-edged, said Renée Ingram, president of the African American Heritage Preservation Foundation. Many of the buildings are crumbling because they are neglected, and could eventually become so deteriorated they must be torn down. At the same time, plans to turn nearby waterfront land into new neighborhoods and parks do not specifically include the historic district, and could overwhelm it, Ingram said.
D.C. planning and preservation officials said the list is well-intentioned and draws needed attention to the preservation cause. But they questioned several of this year's entries.
The city is mulling over two bids to rehabilitate the Franklin School, for example, but will not accept any offer unless it preserves the building's interior architecture and its history, said Lisa Burcham, associate director of the District's historic preservation office.
D.C. Planning Director Andrew Altman said the city would prohibit destruction of the King library building, which was designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, even if the city sells the structure to build a new central library nearby.
As for riverfront redevelopment -- from Southwest to South Capitol Street to Anacostia -- Altman said considerable effort would be made to preserve existing structures that tell the story of the city's past.
"There's no place that we're talking about wholesale demolition," Altman said. "That's something that was done in the 1960s."
On the List
Listed as "most endangered" in 2004 are: Anacostia Historic District, bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Good Hope Road, Fendall Street and Bangor Street and Morris Road; the South Capitol Street corridor, bounded by G Street, the Anacostia River, 2nd Street SE and 2nd Street SW; Battleground National Cemetery, 6625 Georgia Ave. NW; Franklin School, 13th and K streets NW; Tregaron Estate (The Causeway), 3100 Macomb St. NW; Western Union Telegraph Company Building, 4623 41st Street NW.
On the "watch" list: Benjamin Banneker Park, Banneker Circle SW at L'Enfant Promenade; Harewood Estate, Harewood Rd. NE; Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 901 G St. NW; New Southwest; Uline Arena (Washington Coliseum), between 2nd and 3rd and L and M streets NE.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company