Six 19th century houses on Capitol Hill, which developers are seeking to raze to make way for new townhouse condominiums, have been temporarily spared following neighboring residents' testimony that they are "beautiful historic buildings."
Following a public hearing on Sept. 14, Lorenzo Jacobs, state historic preservation office for the District, ordered a 180-day delay before issuing permits to demolish the houses, located in the 200 block of Maryland Avenue NE and the 200 block of 3rd Street NE.
Because the houses lie within the Capitol Hill Historic District, the Joint Committee on Landmarks held a hearing Aug. 5 on the owners' request for permits to raze the buildings. The joint committee - a combined federal-District body - recommended that the state historic preservation office determine that the demolition of the six buildings would be contrary to the public interest and should be delayed. The delay is supposed to permit the state historic preservation officer and the joint committee to negotiate with the owners and any interested civic groups, public agencies and citizens to work out ways to preserve the buildings.
The houses, some of which are owned by Warren Gardner and some of which are owned by William Thompson, lie on about an acre of land that has been offered to the developers as a package. In the fall of 1973 the owners of the property tried to sell it to the Senate for $1.2 million. The Senate had planned to use the land for parking but dropped the project in the face of vehement neighborhood opposition. The owners did not appear at the hearing before the state historic preservation officer.
However, representatives of the prospective buyer, Management and Development Associates, including Bernard Gewirz, the firm's president, and the architect of the proposed condominiums, William R. Henry, did testify. In an interview after the hearing, Gewirz refused to say whether the sale was contingent on the demolition permits being issued. He also declined to disclose the selling price of the land.
According to Gewirz, the developers plan to put up 21 townhouse-type buildings, each of which would contain three of four condominium units. Barrett Linde, who has built many townhouses on Capitol Hill, would construct the project.
"These would be much needed middle-income units compatible with the rest of the community", said Gewirz, adding that the project would create jobs and increase the city's tax base. He said that the units would be priced at about $55,000 each. Asked if the firm had considered retaining the existing houses and incorporating them into the project, Gewirz replied, "We thought about that, but it would run the cost of the product up higher than the market we want to reach."
"The site could serve as a creative example of imaginative in-fill construction," said Andi Helwig of Don't Tear It Down, Inc., suggesting that the developer retain the old buildings and fill in the vacant land with new structures.Helwig called the houses, which include two Greek Revival structures built during the 1850s, one small house built on 1863, and two Victorian houses that date from the 1890s, "a visual record of the progress of 19th-century architectural styles".
Mark C. McInturff, an architect, volunteered to contribute his services in developing an alternative plan that would save the houses and allow reasonable profits. Eric Legstrom of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society said it was his organization's belief that the developers could achieve their goals without sacrificing the existing buildings.
Janet Gordon, testifying on behalf of ANC 6B, said tha the demolition would do "irreparable damage to the Capitol Hill Historic District". The demolition would set a precedent, said Gordon. "Why create a historic district if it is so easily violated?" she asked.
"These houses are on the edge of our neighborhood. The architect of the Capitol and various lobbyist groups have eyed this space for buildings and for parking. At last report, the architect of the Capitol has no plans to demolish any houses in the area, but if we let this go . . ."
About 50 persons attended the hearing, including residents of the endangered buildings and their neighbors. John Topping III, who is 10-months-old, munched animal crackers throughout the hearing and let out frequent, cries, especially during the testimony of his father, who said that the proposed new structures would "repel residents and tourists."
The Toppings live at 220 Maryland Ave., adjacent to the houses slated for demolition. Pat Stoppe, who rents the house at $214 3rd St., which is slated for demolition, said she had tried to buy her home but had been turned down. "Why should houses as beautiful as the houses we live in be torn down just so somebody can make a lot of money?" asked Stoppe.
Robert Massie, attorney for the developer, summed up his client's case by stating that the broader public interest would be served by allowing the developer to put up "healthy, safe, sturdy housing. Homes people can own will stabilize the neighborhood," said Massie. He said, however, that he could not pledge that the price of the completed units would not exceed $55,000.
Several of the groups favoring the delay stated their willingness to work with the owners and the state historic preservation officer during the delay period. In a related development the ANC, the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society are planning to file a petition asking the Zoning Commission to rezone this land, making it less attractive to builders interested in high-density development.