It is 1929 in Northwest Washington, at the white-columned clapboard mansion of Byron S. Adams, known as the "Grand Old Man of Printing." The house has wide hallways and high ceilings and gold brocaded furniture, and 4-year-old Francis King loves to visit his grandparents' home for Sunday dinner because his grandmother lets him ride her elevator chair.
It is 1951. Viola Lutz sees the old Adams house sitting high above Park Road. It is being used as a nursing home, but its stately grandeur reminds her of Tara from "Gone With the Wind." She buys it and converts it into a shelter home for the elderly.
Lutz holds onto the mansion through the influx of blacks and the foreign-born into Mount Pleasant, through the 1963 riots that destroy the nearby shopping centers, through the exodus of many whites. She keeps it long enough to see young professionals, most of them white, begin to move into the area, buying up the huge old homes and slowly restoring them.
It is September, 1977, and the house on the corner at 1801 Park Rd., no longer in use, is half hidden behind overgrown weeds and buses. Viola Lutz, tired to dealing with stringent shelter home regulations and afraid to go outside at night, has moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore where she can leave her doors unlocked and fish from her front yard. She sells the house for $105,000, convinced that her new life in Maryland is better than her old [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in Washington.
The new owner is Semih Ustun, a developer from Bethesda who says he will tear down the Georgian Revival home and replace it with six townhouses - a plan that immediately pits Ustun and the demand for city townhouses squarely against the residents of Park Road in a classic battle between past and present.
The 1800 block of Park Road, explained resident Linda Low, is a neighborhood where "working on their house is a hobby that people take seriously."
It's a neighborhood of turn-of-the-century homes where "if one porch is removed, it's like a person with one tooth missing. The houses were built to complement one another, not stand out individually," said Low, a history teacher who lives at 1827 Park Rd. NW.
The Park Road area is the home of writers, lawyers, teachers, dancers, carpenters and artists who moved into the neighborhood for various reasons. It is surrounded by Rock Creek Park, its residents represent a wide mixture of races, ages, and economic levels - and, of course, it is full of high-ceilinged old houses that need restoring. Some of the homes were used as rooming houses in past years when the owners found it too costly to maintain them.
Many of the new residents were attracted to Mount Pleasant because of the houses' architecture and the historical character of the neighborhood. Some of them, alarmed at the prospect of new townhouses in their midst, have formed an organization called Patrons of the Adams House to save the home from the bulldozers and have been supported by the local citizens association, according to Janet Dyke, who lives at 1741 Park Rd. NW.
"That corner is the heart of Mount Pleasant," Dyke said. Such a home should be restored, not destroyed, she contends.
Don't Tear It Down, the preservationists' organization in Washington, also has joined the battle. The group has filed an application with the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital to get the north side of the 1800 block of Park Road declared a historical landmark.
"The only recourse people have is to submit a landmark application and hope for a delay," said Andi Helwig of Don't Tear It Down. "It's an unfortunate situation. Too many important buildings have been lost."
Ustun, the new owner, doesn't see the house as a landmark. He considers it "one old house sitting where you can have six houses."
Ustun said he sympathizes with the neighbors' concerns, but he said it is not economically feasible to rehabilitate the house.
"It would take another $100,000 just to make the house habitable," Ustan said. "The city has a tremendous housing shortage. It is in the best interest of the city and the community to have more decent housing available."
Ustun said he plans to put six, three-story brick Colonial townhouses on the Adams property, similar to houses he has built at 19th and T Streets NW. The townhomes will sell in the $90,000 to $110,000 range, he said.
"The property belongs to me, and somebody else is trying to do something with it. It's my property, and I think I should be able to do with it what I want," Ustun said. He said once the homes are built, he thinks the neighbors will see the townhouses as "attractive and a credit to the neighborhood."
Helwig said she expects a hearing before the landmark committee is November. The application was filed on the architectural and historical merit of the homes in the block.
"That block of houses is fairly important. It's one of the only blocks of single family houses, architecturally good houses. The people who lived in them were members of the up-and-coming Mount Pleasant area" in the early 1900s, Helwig said.
The Adams house, on the corner, Helwig said, "is an important, visual house. To have that go would drastically alter the neighborhood."
In its application for a historical landmark designation. Don't Tear It Down noted that the men who built the Park Road houses shared two common traits: "They were successful and they were all strong-willed individuals . . . climbing a variety of ladders into the booming prosperity of the times - bartender to saloon owner, bank clerk to bank director, lawyers, doctors and academics - each knew what he wanted in his Mount Pleasant home."