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A Solitary Stand at the Precipice

Austin L. Spriggs declined repeatedly to sell his aging rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Now, it clings to the edge of a massive construction crater four stories deep.
Austin L. Spriggs declined repeatedly to sell his aging rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Now, it clings to the edge of a massive construction crater four stories deep. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The crater is a block long, a block wide and four stories deep, a canyon on Massachusetts Avenue NW between the Washington Convention Center and Union Station.

Earthmovers, so far down at the bottom that they resemble Tonka toys, burrow even deeper. Diesel engines groan, front-loaders beep and the ground shudders with each strike of the steel buckets from the backhoes. Dump trucks shudder up a dirt hill in a dusty convoy from the pit to the street. The pile driving, with its thunderous rhythms, is poised to begin.

And there, on the edge of this gaping chasm, is a stunning symbol of defiance: a tiny townhouse, clinging to a spit of remaining earth.

A net of steel pipes and heavy brackets has been positioned to prop up the house on three sides, but it looks as if at any moment it might crash into the hole. Just three feet of land on either side separate the house from the 40-foot drop-off.

Most mornings, a white car drives up to the precariously positioned townhouse. A man parks on a rough gravel patch, gets out and goes inside, as if nothing unusual is going on around him.

This is Austin L. Spriggs. The holdout.

In a city where landowners are selling long-held property for sudden riches, Spriggs just said no. And no. And no once more.

He resisted waves of developers who wanted to buy his peeling brick building. He turned down wads of money that thickened with time and stretched into the millions. He ignored pleas from other landowners worried that his obstinacy would stymie the fortunes of the entire block. He kept his own counsel, confounding the sophisticated executives who knocked on his door.

And, in the end, they're building around Austin Spriggs.

Exactly why Spriggs held out, what kinds of calculations he made and how he feels about the result is closely guarded. An intensely private man who won't share his home telephone number even with the people who live next door, he declined multiple requests for interviews.

His property, between Fourth and Fifth streets, has become the mystery of Massachusetts Avenue NW, causing double takes, rumors and speculation. "They offered him a lot of money for it, but he wouldn't sell," a man told a woman as they strolled past one recent afternoon.

"It just looks ridiculous -- this little house sitting on top," said Paul Edenbaum, who owned several parcels along the block, including a commercial parking lot next to the Spriggs property, then sold to developers. "You just have to smile."

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