Like the old buildings it strives to restore, the 14-year-old D.C. Preservation League is undergoing a face lift.
While trying to maintain its integrity, the league -- known for years as Don't Tear It Down -- is trying to improve its image, seeking to cooperate with local developers instead of fighting them as it has in the past.
"Litigation used to be our first resort," noted Vicki Sherman, the league's executive director. "Now, litigation is our last resort. . . . We would like never to have to go to court again -- that would be wonderful."
In place of court battles or league pickets in front of buildings slated to be torn down, the 13,000-member organization now prefers to negotiate with a developer from the very start of a project to guarantee that at least parts of a historic building will remain intact.
The maturing of the league -- as the group labels its metamorphosis -- is fairly typical for conservation groups, said Grace Gary, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's mid-Atlantic regional office.
"Most local preservation groups are not changing their names, but they are going in the same direction," Gary said. "We think it is a strong and positive move. I think it improves their effectiveness because it is usually more productive to talk at the beginning than scream at the end."
Even so, the league's change from confrontation to negotiation, and the expansion of its board of directors from 11 to 22 members, has not met with universal support. "I feel alienated and excluded from the way they are going," said Dick Wolf, a league member and an active member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. "By broadening the membership of their board of directors, they are ignoring the grass roots preservation movement. I wait to be convinced, because the league has done an awful lot of good in this town, but I'm discouraged."
Other preservationists say that by abandoning its confrontational approach, the league may lose more battles than it has in the past.
"They may be losing their power as they lose their taste for confrontational issues," noted architect John Wiebenson. Wiebenson noted that the league recently lost its fight against the construction of Techworld, the $240 million, high-technology trade mart to be built across from the city's Convention Center. Preservationists argued that the project would ruin the vista envisioned by Pierre L'Enfant when he drew up his development plans for the capital in 1793.
However, earlier this month the zoning commission -- with strong support of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry -- approved the construction of Techworld, saying it would play a key role in revitalizing downtown.
"I think if they the league were out in the streets with bullhorns, they might have done better," Wiebenson says. "It may have made the mayor think twice about his strong support for Techworld. If he saw an enthusiastic number of voters clearly concerned and disturbed over it, he may not have been so enthusiastic."
Robert A. Peck, the league's president, disagreed. "I don't know that we would have been able to sway the commission if we had gotten a lot of people yelling and screaming outside the zoning hearing," he said, noting that despite the repeated vociferous opposition to the demolition of Rhodes Tavern, Barry still supported its destruction.
"In confrontations, you sometimes win and sometimes lose, but in the long run, you create a bad climate and each successive fight becomes more difficult," Peck added.
Already, Peck said, the league has won some significant victories through negotiation. Perhaps the most significant, he says is the agreement the league signed with the Hecht Co. The May Co., Hecht's parent company, has agreed to preserve much of the orginal structure of Hecht's main store at Seventh and F streets NW when the retailer moves to its new $40 million downtown store now under construction at 12th and F streets NW. Under the agreement, Hecht's has agreed to draft covenants in its deed to guarantee that anyone who buys the old building will not tear it down.
The D.C. Preservation League was founded in 1971 as Don't Tear It Down in an attempt -- ultimately successful -- to save the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue from threatened demolition. Since then, the league has opposed demolition of numerous buildings in the downtown area.
The group's "maturation" began a year ago when its excecutives started weighing new names for the organization, after deciding that Don't Tear It Down presented too negative an image.
The name change came last September.
This year, the renamed league moved to broaden its constituency by naming 11 new directors to its board, among them Roger L. Stevens, chairman of Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Max N. Berry, former chairman of Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., and Virginia H. Knauer, special adviser to President Reagan for consumer affairs.
"We needed a different kind of board," explains Peck. "Before, we had a lot of well-meaning preservationists, but they were not necesarily the ones who could pick up a phone and call a developer to talk on a one-to-one basis about how to save a building. Nor could they call up a foundation board to get money."
Foundation money is already coming in. The Eugene & Agnes E. Meyer Foundation awarded a $12,500 grant to the league earlier this month. Until recently, Peck says, such grants were hard to win. "Foundations wondered whether we were a responsible group in the city -- interested in making necessary accomodations to make things work in this town or whether we were obstructionists."
The foundation money has helped meet the league's increased budget, which now totals $55,000 a year (excluding pro bono legal services and volunteer hours) -- more than a 50 percent increase from last year.
Much of the budget increase went to fund a full-time administrator. Sherman had been working part time for the league. The group hopes to add another full-time employe next year to concentrate on preservation issues. "To be less obstructionist, we need more money to conduct economic and architectural studies to have proof to show that there are economic ways to preserve a building. That costs more than pro bono legal services," says Peck.
To increase its funding, the league is soliciting money not only from foundations but also from major District corporations, law firms and developers -- many of whom have opposed the league in previous battles.
Some privately admit they have rejected the league's pleas for funds, while others have contributed. Oliver T. Carr Co., Shannon & Luchs, Sigal Development Corp., Linowes & Blocher and Shalom Baranes Associates are among those who have contributed to the league, according to a league statement.
Some preservationists question whether the league should accept funds from their would-be opponents. Peck disagrees, however. "I have no fear of being co-opted." If the league ends up opposing one of their contributors, "we shake hands and come out fighting," he says.
As part of its new look, the league is sponsoring a series of public lectures that go beyond the traditional preservationist lectures the league has sponsored in the past. The first lecture, scheduled for April, will focus on outdoor public art in Washington, starting with the outdoor sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum. This summer, the league will sponsor an eight-week lecture series, featuring Washington's historic districts.
Additionally, the league plans to conduct a feasibility study into the preservation of small buildings downtown. It also hopes to study tax incentives and building codes to see what is available to encourage preservation. It also hopes to set up a preservation loan fund to help fund groups that want to restore old buildings.
"We want to be equal players in the real estate scene in Washington," says the league's executive director Sherman.