Carol Bickley would like her organization to self-destruct by 1980. So would a lot of other people - especially many developers, wreckers, lawyers and officials of expanding universities. Bickley is president of Don't Tear It Down, Inc., a group that frequently fights - and beats - people who want to demolish old buildings.
"We had hoped to institutionalize our concerns," said Bickley, a 31-year-old law student who was a founding member of the 6-year-old organization. "We wanted government departments and civic groups to adopt our ideas and put us out of business. This has happened on the neighborhood level to some extent. But downtown has no citizen constituency. That's why we concentrate our primary efforts there."
Though Don't Tear It Down is best known for what Bickley calls "brushfire stuff" - such as lastditch legal battles to save Red Lion Row - the organization's long-range goals are much broader. The group calls itself "a citizens action group working to protect and enhance Washington's physical environment."
The group was formed and christened in crisis. The name came before any organization existed. In the spring of 1971, Alison Owings, a producer for NBC, organized a rally to save the old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Don't Tear It Down" proclaimed the placards. Before and afterthe rally, Owings talked to people about how Washington needed a local preservation group. She called an organizational meeting in the fal1 of 1971, and 37 people showed up. Owings was about to be transferred to New York, and Leila Smith, then a 28-year-old museum administrator, was elected president of the group. The name they chose was, of course, "Don't Tear It Down."
"We made it socially acceptable to save the old Post Office," quipped Smith, recalling the group's first victory. The fight to save the Post Office set the pattern for the organization's basis methodology. The majority rejected suggestions that they chain themselves to the building and instead started doing their homework - researching regulations, attending hearings, demanding answers.
"You start with a basic assumption that something can be done - that the Post Office building can be saved. Then you figure out step by step how to do it," said Smith, who has served three non-consecutive terms as Don't Tear It Down's president.
At the initial meeting, the group decided to focus on three issues: the Post Office, the Willard Hotel and the Franklin School. All three buildings are still standing and considered out of danger. But the group has also experienced some disappointments. The McGill Building, at 19th and G Streets NW, has been replaced by a parking lot. The Riggs Bank branch, at 17th abd G Streets NW: Mary's Blue Room (a turreted neighborhood restaurant on Capitol Hill: a row of 19th-century townhouses, at 19th and N Streets NW, and the old Dunbar High School have all fallen victim to the wrecker's ball. But Smith who became a mother the day the Riggs building was torn down, does not consider these to be failures.
The District's delay-in-demolition law, which enables the State Historic Preservation Officer to order a Six-month cooling-off period before landmark buildings or those in historic districts can be torn down, was enacted as a result of the demolition of the McGill Building in 1973, explained Smith
"And the Dunbar High School case is strengthening that law - by requiring that meaningful negotiations take place during the 180-day period," said Smith.
Since 1971, the group has grown from the original 37 members to about 500. It has also reorganized as a tax-exempt corporation, rented an office- a small room, crowded with files, in an older building at 1346 Connecticut Avenue NW - and hired a staff. It's current operating budget is about $50,000 financed mainly by dues and by grants from the Cafritz Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations.
With a staff including executive director Betts Abel, plus some part-time research and secretarial help, Don't Tear It Down has been able to get involved in the kind of long-range activities its members hope will increase public awareness of the urban environment. These include Take One Tours - leaflets distributed free on Metrobuses that detail sites along the route. To date, the leaflet for the G-2 route, that runs from Howard University to Georgetown University has been published and the leaflet for the S-2/S-4 route, that runs along 16th Street NW, is in the works. The group is also working on a Guide to Neighborhood Action - a how-to book on researching buildings, stopping demolitions, negotiating with builders, etc. Don't Tear It Down's next project, for which the group has applied for additional foundation money, is a survey of the downtown area.
"We have a sense that development is coming back to the downtown area," said Bickley. "We want to work with business groups, to convince them that a place with a nice ambiance will attract more people."
The group wants to encourage downtown development, according to Bickley, partly because this may help save Dupont Circle as a "mixed-use" (residential and commerical) area. To make sure this development doesn't mean wholesale destruction of the existing downtown, the group wants to look into the current plans of various agencies, such as Metro and the Redevelopment Land Agency, for downtown. They want to pinpoint rows to landmarks, compile information on tax incentives for rehabilitating existing buildings, study and effect of height limitations and examine the possibility of transferring air rights from one block to another.
In addition to downtown, executive director Abel sees the neighborhoods around Howard University and George Washington University, where university expansion threatens residential areas, as future battlegrounds for Don't Tear It Down. The battles, in fact, have already begun.
"Don't Tear It Down has appeared in a number of instances regarding university property," said Robert Dickman. George Washington University's assistant treasurer for plans and construction. "We're committed by our master plan to preserving historic properties where economically feasible. I can't sense that Don't Tear It Down always takes that factor - economic feasibility - into account."
Several developers were contacted but none would comment on Don't Tear It Down. WhayneS. Quin, a lawyer with the firm of Wilkes & Artis, which frequently champions the rights of property owners, said that the group's "many efforts to enlarge areas of the city that are historic districts dilutes the meaning of historic preservation. It should be limited to buildings that are truly meaningful. Instead, it's used as a tactic to keep out new development." Quin believes that many of the areas and buildings that Don't Tear It Down tries to protect are "not as important as having housing and economic development in close proximity to Metro."
"Despite our name, we're not really a historic preservation group," said Abel. "We're interested in neighborhood conservation. People think of historic preservation as making buildings into museums. We want to see buildings being used for an everyday purpose."
Abel cites the case of a 19th-century mansion at 1401 16th St NW, that was concerted to offices for attorney Stuart Block.
"That's the sort ofcreative use that makes the streetcape more pleasant, more interesting to walk along. High rises can sometimes achieve this effect, too," said Abel referring to a building at 1800 M St NW. "There are arcades and shops - things the public can use and not just from 9 to 5. If more new buildings were like that, if they preserved the ambience of the city, maybe we wouldn't have to save the old buildings."
Since few new buildings meet these criteria and since many owners refuse to explore ways to use the old buildings, Don't Tear It Down has drafted a proposed amendment to the District's delay-in-demolition law. Among other provisions, the new legislation, which will be considered by the City Council this fall, would require owners of landmark buildings to offer them for sale at a reasonable price to buyers who promised to preserve them.
Whether or not this tough new legislation is passed, Abel is optimistic about the future of the group's urban conservation cause.
"The Bicentennial made people more aware of the value of the old," she says. "And the energy crisis, with rising building costs, made people aware that we're not such an affluent society, that our resources are finite. We can't afford to tear whole cities down and start over again. And the public is generally more organized. Local community groups realize that they can have clout."
Despite some optimism about the future, most Don't Tear It Down members realize that the organization will have to continue its "brushfire stuff."
Much of this work falls into the hands of vice-president David Bonderman, a lawyer.
With the blessing of his law firm, Arnold & Porter, Bonderman spends some of his time doing legal work for Don't Tear It Down on a pro bono, or no fee, basis. What he can't do himself, he finds other lawyers to do.
"With 15,000 lawyers in town, getting pro bono work done isn't really a problem," said Bonderman.
Bonderman's office has a view of the new high rises that are proliferating around the Connecticut Avenue-K Street NW area as well as some of the area's remaining townhouses - fewer and fewer all the time," says Bonderman. Bonderman compares the view of Jefferson Place, right below his window, to the high rises beyond.
It's not just the buildings themselves," says Bonderman. "It's the kinds of uses that are economically feasible in small buildings like the ones of Jefferson Place. There are art dealers there, and small offices. There's human scale to it, and an alive-ness. Compare that with K Street, especially in the evening. It's bad enough in the daytime, because it's so ugly.But at night, it's empty. people don't go near it when they don't have to. Is that what the whole city is going to look like some day?"
Not if Don't Tear It Down has anything to say about it. CAPTION: Picture 1, Don't Tear It Down founder Carol Bickley and her group are fighting to preserve the landmark Albee Building, which houses the old Keith Theater, in the Garfinckel's block downtown. The theater is threatened by a developer's plan for a $40 million mall on the site. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Leila Smith, former president of Don't Tear It Down, and David Bonderman, current vice president of the organization, sit on what were once the steps to an east Dupont Circle townhouse., By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post