Equitable's signature is on this city.
Or, to quote in context from Basis Point, a publication of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States:
"WASHINGTON, D.C.--Equitable's signature is on this city.
"Every morning some 40,000 people . . . go to work in downtown Washington office buildings built with investment money furnished by The Equitable . . . crowd into restaurants or shop in stores located in Equitable-financed buildings . . . head home to comfortable suburban condominiums that are there because Equitable supplied the funds to build them . . .
"Just within the rectangle formed by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire avenues there are 28 buildings funded by the company, in place or rising. Include Metropolitan Washington and the number of buildings reaches 46--two hotels and 44 office buildings . . ."
This all sounds very flourishing and, as you might expect, it has cost Equitable some money to be able to boast accurately in this way. An Equitable executive concerned with Washington investments of the company is said, in the Equitable house organ, to be "proud of his office's realty portfolio and open commitments which together total a billion dollars, and proud of The Equitable's stature in Washington."
A billion bucks does sound like a lot of money, even now, and since Equitable's investments not only provide us lovely places to work, eat and sleep, but also provide a base for tax revenue to the city, it is not hard to imagine that Equitable is a very welcome presence indeed among all right-thinking people.
Which brings me to Rhodes Tavern.
This little building at l5th and F, across from the old Treasury, was built in 1799 and everybody from God to Eisenhower's old cat is on record in favor of preserving it, except a stray architecture critic or two.
Mayor Marion Barry has long supported preserving the tavern, and still urges it, but in a compromise worked out with the local developer, Oliver T. Carr, the city agreed not to hold up the $75 million office-building project by trying to save the tavern. In exchange, the developer agreed to preserve two other landmarks of the block, the Keith Theater and Metropolitan Bank fac,ades.
When the entire block in which the tavern stands was taken in for development (Equitable is the chief source of the millions involved), the question arose what to do with the tavern.
In case anybody is new to town, the tavern was site of the first town voting in 1802, site of the discussions leading to the public schools here (the first of which opened in 1806), was site of taxation and certain court functions, and, not that these are of the same stature, original site of the National Press Club and Sarah Bernhardt's publicly delivered thoughts on the Panama Canal, zub, zub, zub.
The mayor has pointed out that the historic importance of the tavern has never been an issue; everybody agrees it is a historical landmark of importance, which the mayor calls "the District's first town hall."
City Council members Betty Ann Kane, Polly Shackleton, John Ray, and mayoral candidate Patricia Roberts Harris, plus the National Trust for Historic Preservation and 25 other organizations are among those who feel the tavern should be preserved on its present site. Some of them have pointed out the City Council has passed two pieces of legislation specifically intended to facilitate preservation of the historic structures in this block. This legislation gives the developer 30 feet of height, beyond the ordinary legal limit, for the offices on 15th Street, plus public land from the closing of an alley.
Endorsements from these politicians have called the tavern "a symbol of public life in this city, where the public business of our nation and our city have come together politically, socially and economically"; and "the birthplace of democracy in the District" and "its preservation is a must for us." Some of these have written their views to Equitable, which as major funder for the development of the entire block, called Metropolitan Square, presumably could change its mind and request the developer and his architect to preserve the tavern after all.
The building is a Category II landmark, along with Blair House, in the listing of the city's historical preservation office, and there is some feeling it should be elevated to Category I, along with the Capitol and the White House.
Congressional Del. Walter Fauntroy introduced (July 22 this year) a resolution in the House to preserve and restore the tavern as "the oldest District of Columbia and National Register of Historic Places landmark, requiring preservation if possible, between the White House and the Capitol" with an exhortation to keep the tavern where it is and to restore it to its original condition as nearly as possible.
At one point, in fact, the developer's representative asked the Junior League if it would be interested in accepting the tavern, restoring it, and running it. The League was indeed interested and requested that an offer be written out and signed, but the idea was withdrawn.
When the land was acquired for developing the block, it was reported that the tavern would be saved:
"The block contains the historic Rhodes Tavern and Old Ebbitt Grill, both of which the developer plans to preserve. The tavern will be preserved intact . . ."
In some cases of historic preservation, buildings have been sacrificed simply because the economic hardship involved in saving them has been too great for the owner or developer to bear. That has not been the case with Rhodes Tavern. Nobody, including the developer, financial backer or architect has argued that preserving the tavern would be a financial hardship. Instead, the argument has consistently been that esthetically the old tavern would not fit in with the monumental scale of the l5th Street fac,ade of the development. As the developer's architect, David Childs, testified at a hearing for a demolition permit to tear down the tavern:
"We were not constrained by economic reasons to demolish the tavern . . . we were making a recommendation from an architectural point of view, whether right or wrong."
The exceptional variances allowed by the city for this project have provided an estimated 94,000 square feet of rentable office space beyond the ordinary legal limit. The tavern occupies no more than 2.5 percent of the block being developed.
The architect observed, in his testimony of Dec. 10, 1979, at the public hearing, that even if it were cheaper to save the tavern, and even if saving the tavern resulted in more rentable office space, even in that case "it would be inappropriate from an urban-design point of view" to save the tavern.
It was made clear, both by the developer's architect and the chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, that the tavern's scale and perhaps ugliness, from their point of view, made it esthetically unwise to save the building on its site. The developer has offered to give the tavern to the city or some other agency, to move it to another location.
In theory, supporters of the tavern where it is and has always been argue that a landmark loses much of its value if it's moved. And in practice, the mayor says that after two years he has been unable to find any suitable place to move the tavern.
The opinion that the tavern is ugly was soon reflected in media reports and comments. Thus a headline stated "Saving Even Our Unpretty . . . Past," and comments included such opinions as "a missing tooth in the smile of 15th Street," and "this dinky old nondescript building that is nothing short of an eyesore."
The notion that the building is ugly is reflected in a statement of Childs reported in the now-defunct Washington Star:
"In terms of urban design aspects, Rhodes Tavern should be put out of its misery."
A respected architecture critic, observing that he would consider the tavern an "eyesore," went on to observe that the existing Beaux-Arts fac,ades of the Keith Theater and the Metropolitan Bank set a Beaux-Arts tone to the block and the Rhodes Tavern would be out of keeping.
It is wonderful, no doubt, to be so senstive to the loveliness of a movie house fac,ade that one can happily sacrifice a building of prime historic importance on the grounds it does not blend in and has "nothing but history to show for itself."
Such judgments angered those who take the early political and social history of the capital more seriously than they take the fac,ade of a movie palace that hardly seemed to them a landmark at all.
You might as well argue that the White House should be torn down because it does not fit very well with the more dominant Old Executive Office Building next door.
I quote these little examples to show that voices in the media have suggested the Rhodes Tavern is a pretty sorry structure to look at.
Virtually everybody, including Equitable and the local developer and the politicians and the fine arts folk and the media, are in utter agreement that historic old buildings should be preserved not only for their memories but as a slight contraceptive to the otherwise promiscuous proliferation of urban bastardy in architecture. But the way to correct the increasing dullness of downtown Washington, apparently, is to demolish a unique late 18th-century tavern of vast historical import and substantial architectural charm.
"Colonial taverns are not an endangered species in these parts," the architecture critic went on.
Sure. We got dozens. But he did not mention the fact that they are not in Washington and we are. Nor did he cite, since there are no others to cite, other colonial taverns with an equal claim to primacy in the history of the capital.
And since when, you may ask, does an old building have to look like a whore on Easter to attract the kindly attentions of the Don't Tear It Down organization (which approved tearing down Rhodes Tavern) and the Fine Arts Commission and the critics?
Supporters of the old tavern, including me, feel somewhat abandoned by the very watchdogs who, we thought, were bound either by law (the Fine Arts Commission) or by stated commitment to historical landmarks (such as the Don't Tear It Down organization) or by balanced judgment and reasoning (such as architectural critics) to stand up for historic buildings against the understandable but undesirable plans of investors hot after dollars.
It's the usual case that if a corporation is investing a billion dollars in the real estate of a city, few people will be rude enough to say hey, you're making big bucks here, and saving the tavern isn't even an economic hardship for you, so how about returning a little something more than empty babble about preserving historic buildings?
Joseph N. Grano Jr., whose efforts as unpaid head of a small outfit called Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern have been endorsed by the National Trust, told me when I phoned to ask him how things were going:
"It may be hard to believe the tremendous egos of some people. They take a look at a building and don't think it's pretty and that's that. Never mind whether they are good judges, and never mind how historic the building is. Their taste is law, as far as they are concerned."
The present dismal trite canyons of K and L streets went up without any screams from the Fine Arts Commission or the media or the politicians or anybody else, but all of a sudden there is this great offense at the ugliness of Rhodes Tavern, unworthy to squat modestly on the corner of a commercial speculation which will, you might almost think, be nobler than the Place de la Concorde, St. Mark's Square and the Bernini Colonnade all put together.
Unfortunately, the Rhodes Tavern message is that no matter what historic preservation laws you have and no matter how many people seem to be in favor of saving an unarguably unique building, and no matter how many boards and commissions and consultants and watchdogs you have, there is still no real safety for a major landmark in America. Anybody can tear it down, even without claiming economic hardship, provided he can round up two or three critics to say it really isn't all that pretty, and provided the destructive power has a few hundred million dollars to invest in speculative real estate ventures.
And it all comes about through no villainy. You can see the mayor's bind. You can see the developer's interest in getting what he hopes is a fine design and you can see (especially if you are more charitable to Washington architects than I am) the architect's notion that an old building might interfere with his majestic masonry. You can see Equitable's position that it has a lot of millions tied up in the block of Rhodes Tavern, and it relies on its developer's architect and the Fine Arts Commission and the others who say what a shame, but tear the tavern down.
What has been lacking in this polite and reasonable and unholy mix to date is a clear awareness that a major landmark is to be sacrificed for no better reason than an ordinary architect's desire to have his (doubtless) glorious office-rental fac,ade marred by a modest and charming structure unique in the capital. The tavern is being lost by default, in which the decision is effectively being left to the estheticism of a few who think nothing may be allowed to interfere with some (doubtless magnificent, like the other magnificent buildings of K and L streets) new office building.
On the surface, everything has been reasonable on the part of this development that seems likely to destroy Rhodes Tavern. Acknowledged experts have advised tearing the tavern down, and the developers have listened to this expert advice and have been supported by the courts, which affirm the demolition decision.
But however reasonable it may all seem, the wrong conclusion has been reached, and when reason and civility and honest negotiation all result in a thoroughly bad decision to destroy an invaluable registered landmark, then reason and civility have been used to poor purpose. I sometimes think better results might have been achieved if someone had suggested to Equitable that it take its signature and its billion and stuff it.