A row of seven 19th century buildings, which preservationists have nominated for landmark status, was saved from demolition last week by the District of Columbia corporation counsel.
A memo, dated Nov. 15 and signed by Corporation Counsel Louis Robbins, directed the Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections not to issue demolition permits for the buildings at 1739 through 1751 F St. NW until after the question of their landmark status is decided.
The Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital is scheduled to hold a public hearing Dec. 8 on the landmark status proposal for those buildings.
If the committee gives landmark status to the buildings, they could be subject to a 180-day delay in demolition and may become subject to a proposed law currently before the City Council that would empower the city to halt demolition of landmarks indefinitely.
The seven buildings, part of a row that originally contained 13 French Empire-style houses, were proposed for landmark status by Don't Tear It Down Inc., a D.C. preservation group, and the Foggy Bottom-West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission. They were built in 1871 as homes for Washington's elite by Alexander (Boss) Shepherd, the territorial governor of the District of Columbia, who was also a developer.
The block of F Street was called Michler place, probably in honor of Lt. Col. Nathaniel Michler, then commissioner of public buildings and grounds for the city, according to the landmark application.Since that time, Michler Place has been all but swallowed up by downtown, and the block is now zoned for office buildings and shops, rather than residences.
Until recently, the row of buildings proposed for landmark status housed a variety of small shopes, dry cleaners, a carryout and jenny's Pan-Asian Restaurant, long a landmark for homesick Asians.
A sign on the door of Jenny's that announced the restaurant's recent closing read. "You can't stop progress." Beside the sketch of a wrecking ball threatening the restaurant, someone had had written: "You can try!" - perhaps a reference to the pending landmark application.
Inside, regular patrons, many of them workers from the high-rise office buildings that have gradually replaced the homes and small businesses that once filled the White House neighborhood, ordered Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai specialties for what may have been the last time.
According to Korean-born Helen Lee, the owner of Jenny's, tenants were told they had to leave because the buildings, shaken by the heavy construction projects nearby, were unsafe.
Plans for reopening in another location are uncertain, said Lee, who has operated Jenny's for 24 years.
"We tried to locate around here, so we wouldn't lose our customers. There's been so much loyalty all these years - loyalty on both parts. But it's awfully hard . . . There's not enough place, and the prices are astronomical."
When Lee and her late husband, who was Chinese, opened the restaurant in 1954, they served only Chinese food. They later expanded the menu to include other Asian cuisines in response to requests from Asian students, people on foreign exchange programs and employes of international agencies.
"They were anxious to have us cook something for their appetite," explained Lee, who added that her widely traveled customers spread Jenny's reputation.
By noon on the last day, all the banquettes were occupied by patrons eating their last bowl of Jenny's Korean hot soup or shrimp fried rice, while others waited their turns.
"It's too bad they can't stay in the area," said Thurston Faulder, who works nearby. "Progress has its drawbacks."
"We're heartbroken," said a spokesman for a group of World Bank employes that includes Nicaraguan, Burmese, Phillipine, Canadian and American citizens.
Glenn T. Urquhart, who said that he and a partner Kevin Donohoe, exercised "control over the property under something analogous to an option," said that structural engineers who have examined the buildings have said they were unsafe and that the only way to preserve them would be to tear them down, save the brick and facade ornaments, and rebuild the facades on top a new superstructure. Urquhart said that this was one of the options the developers were considering.
Another option, said Urquhart, would be to demolish the buildings and put up a new office building. He said he did not know which option he and Donohoe would choose, since financial calculations are not complete.
"But we couldn't just leave the buildings as is - they'll kill somebody," said Urquhart, citing a leaky roof, holes in many of the brick walls, rotten beams and the fact that the front wall of one of the buildings has separated from the main structure.
The property is owned by several members of the Burka family, which until recently operated a liquor store in one of the buildings. Norman Burka, who said he was the family spokesman, referred all questions about the property to Urquhart and Donohoe.