When land in a historic area is "developed" or "threatened," depending on your viewpoint, there is usually a great hue and cry, but it is rare for the pro-preservationists to try to put their money where their principles are.
In the case of the Dodge House at 28th and Q Streets, NW, in the middle of Georgetown, the owner obtained permits to begin work on two townhouses that would occupy 48 feet frontage on Q Street.
This was bitterly opposed by a group of residents who call themselves the Q Street Group, on grounds that the garden in which the houses would be built is one of the last remaining green spaces in Georgetown.
Several factors make the case more important than the garden-variety hassle over building something in Georgetown.
First, the garden is one of the largest in Georgetown, extending 100 feet behind the house (this garden would be reduced by half the townhouses were built, though the remaining 50 feet of garden would still be one of the largest in Georgetown).
In addition to the size of this green space, it has associations with Calvert Vaux, who with Andrew Jackson Downing was a major popularizer of the informal or picturesque style of landscaping and romantic house design in the last century.
The house is one of perhaps eight still remaining that can authoritatively be attributed to Downing, and Vaux illustrated it in one of his books.
It is not argued that Vaux designed the garden in the sense that a modern landscape architect designs property, but the pro-preservation forces contend Vaux insisted on as much land around the house - a "rural villa" - as possible, treated in a naturalistic or picturesque way. If half of this land is now given to townhouse, they argue, the original conception will be severely damaged.
These arguments held with the Fine Arts Commission (a purely advisory agency, though its recommendations are almost never overturned) which set a precedent by saying the seting for a historic house was the worthy of protection in itself, as well as the building.
After this ruling, however, the mayor's office weighed the advice of the commission against the merits of the property owner, Martin F. Malarkey, who wished to sell the land for townhouses, and found for Malarky.
At this point the matter might have seemed settled, but was not.
The Q Street preservation group sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to stop the townhouses. That court denied the request for the injunction.
While this was before the court, however, efforts were made to interest the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the disputed land of the Dodge House garden. After a good bit of back and forth, the Trust decided not to intervene, and not to offer Malarkey $150,000 for the controversial 48 feet of land.
At this point, two owners of adjoining property offered (through their lawyer, Courts Oulahan) to buy the townhouse lots themselves. According to Malarkey they first tentatively offered $125,000 but Malarkey says he was not interested in anything less than $175,000. At this point Malarkey says he was told the Trust might offer $150,000 for a scenic easement.
He said he was willing to consider that. (It would mean $150,000 in exchange for the commitment in any owner of the house not to use the land to build on.)
But when the Trust's board declined to make this offer firm, Malarkey says he resumed his original price of $175,000 for outright purchase of the garden lots.
Oulahan's clients were not be able to meet the $175,000 price.
Malarkey said yesterday that the man proposing to build the townhouses, Sam Pardoe, would need reimbursement (legal fees alone have been more than $20,000, Malarkey said) if he did not get to build the houses. If the $175,000 price had been met, Marlarkey said, he would have paid Pardoe his expenses thus far and split the rest of the price with Pardoe.
Asked if he would still sell the land for $175,000, he said the probably would not, since Pardoe is preparing to begin work on the site next week. Already he said, he has lost the income he would have had if the townhouse deal had gone through a year and a half ago. (The proposed townhouses would sell for about $400,000 each).
This is a unique case in which the garden setting of a house was declared inviolate by the Fine Arts Commission, and is a rare example of the commission's being overruled. It is also a rare example of propreservationists trying to purchase the land, instead of relying entirely on society at large to preserve the open sit for them.
A Downing scholar, David Schuyler of Newburg, N.Y., said, "I do think it important that the house has this space," though he declined to comment on the merits of the garden as a Downing or Vaux-type design, and fervently asked not to be drawn into the controversy which has involved the courts, the commission and the mayor's office.
The pro-preservationists, who wish only to give the name of their attorney, Oulahan, said yesterday they are sorry they hadn't been able to meet Malarkey's price for outright purchase of the lots, but saw no obstacle as of yesterday to work on the site next week.
They said they had personal interests since they have adjoining property, but said their chief concern is that developers seem able to do anything they want, despite recommendations against building by the Fine Arts Commission, and they argue that if townhouses can be put down on land judged worthy of protection in Georgetown, then developers can do anything they wish anywhere else, and never mind aesthetic questions such as green space and historic settings.
But unless something unforeseen develops, it appears that the long fight to prevent building on this Georgetown site is at last settled, in favor of allowing construction.
Preservationists still believe they will ultimately win a court case on the principle that the construction permits whould have been denied, but believe it will be a hollow victory even if they win, since by that time the townhouses will be built, and will almost certainly stand as "nonconforming" variations of prevailing zoning rules.