A zealous band of preservationists took on a wrecking crew at 2030 I Street NW the other day and won, sort of. The preservationists got the front half, and the wrecking crew got the back.
2030 I St. is an 1831 federal-Greek revival town house, and architectural landmark, and a symbol of the graceful elegance Washington is trying to recapture. Or it is a sagging eyesore, an unsalvageable safety hazard, and the private property of a business that wants a parking lot there instead. Depends on who is talking.
It is also, by any standards, only half there.
Early on Saturday, the morning after the builiding's owners finally received permission to raze it, a wrecking crew arrived at the old brick town house and set about knocking it to the ground. Word had gone out among the preservationists who have been watching I Street - 'they're tearing it down' - and by 8 in the morning the preservationists had begun assembling on I Street to boo.
The wreckers threw debris off the roof. The preservationsists marched around with "Don't Tear it Down" signs. The wreckers kicked out windows. The preservationists made phone calls and consulted lawyers and coralled passersby. The wreckers knocked out doors.
"They were using the doors as a fence," said Karen Gordon, a member of the preservationist group called Don't Tear it Down, her voice rising at the indignity of it. "It was really heartbreaking for me to watch them tear the doors off and pound nails into them . . ."
Finally, the wreckers roped the back of the building to a bulldozer, Gordon said, and prepared to pull. The preservationists ran over from the nearby pay phone - a temporary restraining order had been issued, halting demolition. The wreckers pulled, ripping away the back half of 2030 I St.
Then, Gordon said, they stopped work. They left the front half of the building intact and the back in a shambles: ragged, open walls, and great heaps of crumbling brick. A sink and toilet hang suspended in the air from the wall of a second-story bathroom that did not fall away.
Gordon noted that with some pride. "Despite the bulldozer," she said, "the plumbing is still intact."
Representatives of the Howard P. Foley electrical company, which owns 2030 I St. as well as four other houses on the block, were unavailable for comment yesterday to confirm the preservationists' descrtiption of the aborted demolition.
Earlier this summer, though, the company's treasurer, John Selinger, told The Washington Post that the company wanted eventually to build a headquarters building on the site of the five houses.
"We've been in business at this location since 1923," Selinger said then. "We're an expanding company. We intend to have our own building to take care of our needs. We have our needs, and we have some rights, too."
The Foley Co's problem - and the preservationists' concern - is that the I Street houses are historical landmarks, 19th century row houses built long before I Street all but disappeared under the shadow of massive office buildings. The houses are known now as "Red Lion Row," named after the brightly painted pub at 2024 I St, and all were granted landmark status last January by the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capitol.
Landmark designation protects a building only by allowing the Joint Committee to order a 180-day delay in the granting of demolition permits. The committee ordered such a delay on the razing of 2030 I St. last November, so that preservationists, local officials, and the Foley Co. could discuss possible uses for the building.
The preservationists say there was inadequate discussion, that they never were given time to present their suggestion, which would incorporate the old Red Lion Row buildings into a modern structure behind I Street. On the basis of that complaint, they were granted a temporary restraining order Saturday to halt demolition of the 2030 I st. house.
They have to post $6,000 bond by 4 p.m. today, however, to keep the restraining order active.
"We're just nickel and diming it" and relying on contributions, Gordon said. If they win, the preservationists insist, they can make something even of the half building that stands now.
"It's just an old building which needs the normal jacking up," said Thomas Simmons, the architect who helped prepare the preservationists' proposal for Red Lion Row.