Having failed in previous attempts to save the Rhodes Tavern, defenders of the building have appealed to a lingering plantation mentality in Congress where some members would attempt to influence the course of economic development and commerce in the District.
Congressional meddling effectively stopped development from proceeding at the Metro Center site and delayed early attempts to get that project off the ground. When the only developer who showed any interest in developing Metro Center proposed that the city lease office space in his proposed project, a congressional subcommittee rejected the idea, and construction plans were scrapped.
Now, some members of Congress have seen fit to ignore the principles of home rule by meddling in a purely local matter. At least two resolutions noting the concern of Congress over the fate of Rhodes Tavern have been introduced, and one was the subject of a hearing earlier in the week.
Although congressional approval of either of the resolutions at this point wouldn't have the effect of law, it could send an unsettling signal to potential investors. Strengthened by an endorsement from Congress, an ad hoc group parading under the flag of preservation could kill or tie up a commercial project for years even though it may be vital to the city's economy.
In this case, the issue of the preservation of the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F streets NW is, as developer Oliver T. Carr told a congressional subcommittee, "one of local interest."
Rhodes Tavern, which is said to be the oldest commercial building in the District, is a nondescript, three-story stucco building located in a prime downtown block that is being developed by the Carr Co.
After lengthy negotiations, compromises and adjudication, the Carr Co. won approval from the city and courts to demolish the tavern. But an ad hoc preservationist group, having assigned historical significance to the tavern, has waged a five-year battle to save the structure.
The Carr Co. has offered to donate the tavern and $100,000 to a nonprofit group that would be willing to relocate the building to another site. Despite interest in saving the tavern, nobody has accepted the developer's offer.
And the Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern remains adamant in its bid to keep the structure intact on its present site.
In the meantime, the Carr Co. has all but completed the first phase of an office-retail complex in the block, having preserved three important landmarks -- the Keith's Theater-Albee building, the National Metropolitan Bank and the interior of the Old Ebbitt Grill -- by incorporating them into the project.
The wood-paneled interior of the Old Ebbitt Grill, which was founded in 1856, will be relocated in Carr's project, Metropolitan Square.
Might Carr have considered a similar fate for Rhodes Tavern?
"We are talking of remnants," Carr testified Tuesday. "Five bays of the original structure were demolished decades ago. Numerous storefront changes and interior alterations have occurred over the years, leaving little original fabric intact."
Much has been made about the historical significance of the Rhodes Tavern although neither the Federal Commission on Fine Arts nor the local preservationist group, Don't Tear It Down, considers it worth saving.
Prior to Carr's purchase of the property in the late '70s, Rhodes Tavern, which eventually became a magazine and souvenir stand, was allowed to deteriorate without objection from preservationists.
The issue to be resolved here is no longer the historic significance of Rhodes Tavern. That's been determined by law, recognized authorities on historic landmarks and leading architects.
The issue is what's in the best interest of the city. The benefits to be gained by the city from development of the Rhodes Tavern property far outweigh any that might result from leaving the tavern intact.
To be sure, the Carr Co. and other developers, while expressing altruistic motives, are motivated first by profits. In the long run, however, the city also benefits from carefully planned and approved commercial development.
That includes provisions for preservation. And neither economic development nor preservation should be considered in a vacuum or undertaken without due regard for the other.
Both the city government and the business community have agreed with that proposition and apparently are committed to making it work.
"The primary concern of the Greater Washington Board of Trade is that preservation be viewed in the context of an overall plan for downtown," explained Michael Glosserman, chairman of the board's historic preservation task force.
A similar position is expressed in recommendations submitted by the mayor's downtown committee for the comprehensive plan.
Those seem like far better approaches than congressional meddling and futile crusades that delay development of the central city.