Under Channel 9's camera lights, the Fine Arts Commission suddenly saw invaluable historic importance in an old kiln and dilapidated house that it found quite dispensable several months earlier with no TV crew present.
"I think that in principle we have no objection to the idea of razing (them)," said Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown last March 2.
In its televised November meeting, with angry picketers outside, Brown's commission objected strongly to razing the kiln and house which are part of Hamilton Arms Village in Georgetown.
Like many an Italian hilltown or Mexican pueblo, "The Village," as its mostly enthusiastic and bohemian residents call it, is both a romantic delight and a slum.
It was created in the 1930s by Col. Hamilton Brinkley and his family, notably his daughter Molly Reid. The family assembled a complex of houses along 31st Street NW between M and N Streets. They yielded 38 apartments and a long-closed restaurant known for Southern cooking and, some say, cockroaches.
One or two of the houses were built on 19th-century foundations. Most are Depression architecture. And two-the Parsonage and the old Telephone Exchange building along 31st Street-have some inherent architectural distinction.
As a whole, as an ensemble, as a village, however, the place has-or rather had-a marked distinction of another kind. As one former resident put it, "A special magic existed there which is hard to explain-a kind of inspirational decadence." Someone else called the village "a gypsy-like place."
The magic was wrought by Molly Reid, who literally cemented the medley of houses together with concrete walkways, benches and all manner of bric-a-brac and statuary, studded with broken crockery and tiles, wrought iron ornaments, stained glass an ubiquitous paintings of flowers and birds in Molly Reid's version of the Alpine peasant style.
Amidst all this colorful clutter are patches of greenery. In the center is a handcrafted, abandoned swimming pool with a recently castrated plaster Herculers. A grape arbor leads into this enchanting labyrinth, widely hailed as folk art. The only folk is Molly Reid and her gifted caretaker, William Millard.
Some of the tiny apartments are even more elaborately decorated than the courtyard. Former residents told me that Molly Reid could hardly wait for a tenant to move out so that she could move in and paint yet more flowers and birds or add to her mosaic murals. Her creation has been compared with Simon Rodia's famous fantasy towers in Watts, which seems farfetched.
Nevertheless, Molly Reid provided ambiance and cheap rents. The combination inspired an intense community life, something of a commune long before the communes of the '60s were invented. I know people who, after a few weeks, fled this chumminess in horror. Most feel a fierce loyalty to the place.
Early in 1977, Molly Reid and her husband died within months of each other. Hamilton Arms Village is now owned by architect Richard Stauffer, backed by a group of investors.
Stauffer and his backers are no ordinary greedy developers. They are willing to get rich slowly. Stauffer sees his advantage in doing right by Georgetown and the super-chic cause of restoration. He wants to keep as much of Molly Reid's work and all of the unique magic of the village.
He also wants his building permit. To obtain it, he must bring the place up to building code standards. It is now in shambles. Walls are crumbled by falled trees. Hot electric wires dangle out in the open. Some roofs are about to collapse. A few structures are weakened by termites. A number of charming additions and changes were made impromptu without building permits. Some of Molly Reid's ornamentation covers up serious damage.
More to the point of this story, the Reid's own rambling house in the center of the complex never got a certificate of occupancy. Stauffer can therefore not legally repair or alter it, because for the zoning commission, it does not exits.
The rules now require off-street parking. To provide it, stauffer proposes to demolish the Reid house as the zoming commission requires, as well as the shed or kiln in which Molly Reid fired some of the ceramic tiles, so he can build a 16-car garage and enlarge te inner court.
He would also replace ome of the structurally deficient houses with modern ones, essentially in the old scale and color schemes. There would be no exterior changes along 31st Street, although office occupancy there would keep village rents reasonable. Molly Reid's mosaics and other decorations would be preserved as far as possible. Some have already been stolen.
The Fine Arts Commission must pass judgment on all that is built in Georgetown. When Stauffer informed it of these plans, it did not object to the idea but wanted to see a detailed design before giving final approval9
By the time Stauffer brought in his design, the 10 remaining Hamilton Arms residents had organized their opposition. They mobilized the picket lines. They brought in the TV camera. They changed the Fine Arts Commission's mind.
As some of them testified and as one of them, Deborah Day, a medical student, explained it, the Hamilton arms villagers don't want any changes.
"Why can't we keep the place quaint?" asks Day. "Why must all of Washington become an elitist highrent city?"
Day concedes that the village needs extensive and expensive repairs. She concedes that in a capitalist society that would raise rents to elitist altitudes. "But why can't craftsmen, carpenters and masons just come in and fix up the place? Whydo we need an architect?" she demands.
And that is what it seems all about-the still growing disenchantment and distrust with contemporary architecture and its practitioners, the growering disdain for what we so proudly hailed as "progress." Another opponent told the commission: "It's going to be slick and it's going to be airconditioned."
"Sure, Stauffer says he wants to preserve the ambiance of the place," says Day. "But he is a young architect, he wants to make a statement."
Sensing the danger of such anti-architectural sentiments, even the most seasoned veterans in the fight for Georgetown quaintness, such as architect Grosvenor Chapman, rallied to Stauffer's defense.
But Fine Arts Commissioner Kevin Roche, a nationally famous architect from New Haven, opposes Stauffer's statement. He pleaded for existing character versus architectural change. If you can't save existing buildings, you can't save the city, Roche said in effect. Brown and the rest of the commission went along, asking Stauffer to work out some compromise with his opponents.
But how can citizen Stauffer resolve the conflicting demands of two government agencies-the Fine Arts and Zoning commissions? It seems more likely that he will give up and sell. And then?
Day and her enthusiastic friends have faith that somehow, with some kind of foundation help, a tenant co-operative could take over. But even if we all paid the ncessary subsidies, could that resurrect Molly Reid's ambiance?
I wish I could believe it.
I fear, instead, that Channel 9's camera filmed the beginning of the final, slow and painful demise of Hamilton Arms Village. Death by excessive idealism.