New Rowhouse Rooflines Raising Eyebrows in D.C.

To the dismay of preservationists, rooftop additions are popping up on more District rowhouses as owners seek additional living space or bigger profits.
To the dismay of preservationists, rooftop additions are popping up on more District rowhouses as owners seek additional living space or bigger profits. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The broad front stairs and dark brick evoke a style of rowhouse that has become a Washington icon over the past century.

But wait. What's that looming over the neighboring homes like an architectural non sequitur?

It's a newly constructed third floor, encased in a bright gray shingle and siding, a touch of suburbia unceremoniously plopped atop a revered symbol of the city.

The rowhouse's owner, a limousine driver-turned-developer, said he added the floor to turn a 95-year-old single-family home into a handsome condominium. Residents and preservationists have rendered a less glowing review.

"It looks terrible," said Patricia Hill, 45, lower lip curling as she sat on a stoop near the property on New Hampshire Avenue NW in Petworth. Across the street, she could see another rowhouse with a new third floor, the fresh brick darker than the old, disrupting a roofline created by a strip of two-story homes, all of them built nearly 100 years ago.

In their search for more space, property owners have forever tacked on additions to the backs of their houses. But now developers and homeowners, yearning for more house and, in some cases, more profit, are building skyward, a direction that preservationists say is threatening the charm of older neighborhoods.

District officials don't keep statistics on rooftop additions, or "pop-up" roofs, as they are known. But they estimate that at least 200 have sprouted in recent years as real estate values have soared.

The pop-ups are sufficiently common that the D.C. Preservation League recently designated rowhouse enclaves such as Columbia Heights, Eckington and the eastern edge of Capitol Hill as architecturally endangered. The rooftop additions can also be found in Petworth, Shaw, Adams Morgan, Brookland and Chevy Chase.

"It's happening a lot, and it's certainly something that has become more common in recent years," said David Maloney, deputy state historic preservation officer for the D.C. Office of Planning. "All you have to do is drive around the city, and you can see them. Some are sort of frightening. Many are awful, ugly and bizarre."

And they're legal, as long as neighborhood zoning allows for greater height, which is how a developer added three floors to what was once a four-story building on Belmont Road in Adams Morgan. After that pop-up, the city deemed a swath of the neighborhood historic. Now a developer or a homeowner seeking to add a floor or even replace a window has to obtain city approval for the design.

But no such protections exist in neighborhoods that are not designated historic. In those areas, developers and homeowners are free to use whatever materials they choose, which sometimes leads to jarring sights. "When you alter these rowhouses, when you put up a pop-up, it changes the landscape and the streetscape of any given street you see," said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League.

In Petworth, a two-story yellow brick rowhouse has been topped with a third floor wrapped in brown siding, making it stick out in a line of nearly century-old rowhouses. A porch that matches those on the other houses is also being dismantled.

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