A wrecking crew began demolishing three of the seven houses known as Michler Place last week, on the same day that all seven of the century-old buildings were declared historic landmarks.
As the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital deliberated last Thursday on Landmard status for the buildings at 1739 through 1751 F St. NW, wreckers began leveling the three houses at the eastern end of the row with a crane.
On Wednesday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert M.Scott had ruled that 1739, 1741 and 1743 F St. had to be either torn down or made safe because a panel of engineers found the buildings posed a danger to public safety. Because of their condition, the judge ruled, the buildings were exempt from a District law that protects landmarks. However, the judge warned the buildings' owners not to damage the remaining four houses, which the panel found basically sound and which are therefore protected by the landmark law.
Scott also ordered Don't Tear It Down, the preservation group that filed the preservation grup that filed the landmark application and brought suit to block demolition of the buildings, to pay for the bracing of a wall on one of the remaining structures and for other repairs. Don't Tear It Down appealed the judge's ruling and the D.C. Court of Appeals granted the organization a stay, pending a hearing.
The repairs ordered by the judge were designed to stabilize the four remaining buildings.
Since the buildings are now landmarks, they are subject to a 180-day delay in demolition. If, after hearings, a delay is ordered, the buildings will be protected under a stronger landmark law expected to take effect about March 1, after a waiting period in Congress. Under that law, the city can refuse to grant demolition permits for landmark buildings.
Glenn T. Urquhart, a developer who proposed to build a commercial structure on the site under a lease agreement with the owners, said that the site of the three demolished buildings is too small to build on. At the landmarks committee hearing, Urquhart showed a series of photographs of dislodged bricks, structural cracks and other defects which, he said, argued against landmark designation for the structures. Urquhart said he agreed with the proponents of landmark status that the buildings in the row, which were built in the 1870s by politician-developer Alexander Shepherd, "represent the growth of the downtown area in the 1870s."
"But why prohibit the growth of the downtown area today?" asked Urquhart. "Alexander Shepherd was a real estate developer. Why not permit the cycle to repeat itself?"
David Bonderman, an attorney for Don't Tear It Down, accused Urquhart both in court and at the hearing of removing some parts of the buildings and contributing to the deterioration.
"This is an example of the purposeful defacement and deterioration in order to defeat the (landmark) committee's jurisdiction," said Bonderman.
Urquhart denied this allegation. In court, Judge Scott ruled that there was no evidence to support it.
Michler Row houses were built in the French Empire style of architecture as residences for the elite. By the 1950s, when the houses were acquired by their present owners, Norman, Edith and Lillian Burka, the ground floors had been converted to small shops.
"A cleaners, a whisky store, a Chinese carryout and a Vietnamese restaurant -- is this what is to be preserved?" asked Harold Nussbaum, an attorney representing the Burkas at the landmark hearing. He asked the committee to deny landmark status because "the application is based on a streetscape of seven buildings, but only four can, under any circumstances, be preserved."
Proponents of landmark status and the staff of the landmark committee said, however, that the buildings merited landmark status even if only four could be saved.