The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has recommended that developer Oliver Carr be allowed to tear down the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets, the oldest commercial building in the city. However, the commission also recommended that Carr be denied demolition permits for the Albee Building and the Metropolitan Bank Building, two other landmark structures in the block adjacent to Garfinckel's, where Carr plans to build a $40-million shopping-office-hotel complex.
The recommendations, announced at a commission meeting last week, will be forwarded to the D.C. Permits Branch, which issues demolition permits. Although the recommendations do not have to be accepted by the Permits Branch, the city usually follows the Fine Arts Commission's advice, according to Ernest Pifer, head of the Permits Branch.
Razing of the Rhodes Tavern could be held up, however, even if demolition permits are approved. Since the project involves historic buildings, the question of whether to allow Carr to demolish any of them is being considered by Lorenzo Jacobs, the District's historic preservation officer. Jacobs must decide within the next month whether to invoke a 180-day delay in demolition as recommended recently by the Joint Committee on Land marks.
The 180-day waiting period is supposed to be used for negotiaton between the developer and people interested in saving the buildings. If Jacobs decides against invoking the delay in the case of the Rhodes Tavern, Carr probably would be able to get a demolition permit within a few days.
The Fine Arts Commission's recommendatons apparently mean that demolition permits will not be issued for the Albee and Metropolitan Bank buildings, whether or not Jacobs in vokes the 180-day delay.
"To tear down the Albee and Metropolitan Bank buildings would be a crime no matter how sensitive the design of the new building," said J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Fine Arts Commission. Brown indicated that the commission would not object to the back part of the buildings being razed, however.
"But the real toughie is the Rhodes. To rebuild it would be fake, like a Hollywood set," he said. "And it's not significant in architectural terms." Brown said the low height of the tavern made a "gaping tooth," ruining the urban design of that section of town.
"It's not worth moving, because the important thing about it is its site," said Brown. The old tavern served as the British command post during the burning of the White House in 1814. Built about 1800, the tavern was substantially altered over the years and partially demolished during the 1950s. The building now houses a newsstand, a restaurant and a fruit store. Brown suggested that the site be marked by a plaque.
Carr said he is willing to preserve any or all of the three landmark buildings in the block and incorporate them into the new complex if funds can be raised. Carr has contracted with a fund-raiser to explore ways to finance such a preservation plan. Carr's project manager, Clyde F. Newman III, said it would take $17.9 million to preserve the buildings and to offset losses to Carr due to reduced rental space.
To preserve only the facade of the Metropolitan Bank Building and the facade and part of the main structure of the Albee Building would take about $4.7 million, according to Newman. Preservation of the Metropolitan and the Albee is the alternative favored by Carr's architect, David Childs, who said both buildings, which were built in 1911, are fine examples of Beaux Arts architecture. Childs said the arches of the bank building could serve as an imposing entrance to the complex, but the tavern would present design problems.
Ann Loikow, representing the Foggy Bottom-West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, protested any plan to raze the tavern and said a real effort should be made to save it.
"The Rhodes Tavern is an incredibly historic building, the oldest commercial structure in the city," Loikow testified at the Fine Arts Commission meeting. "Part of the charm of the urban environment is the fact that there are incongruities like the Rhodes."
Under the Shipstead-Luce Act, the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal body, reviews applications for demolition and building permits in areas of the city adjacent to federal buildings. The mall to be developed by Carr is across the street from the U.S. Treasury.