Representatives from five of the city's historic neighborhoods got together during National Historic Preservation Week last week for a forum on the ups and downs of living in historic districts.
During the informal discussion, sponsored by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development at the Pension Building, the representatives from Capitol Hill, LeDroit Park, Takoma, Dupont Circle and Old Anacostia learned that grants to owners of historic properties may dry up by 1981.
Historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places are protected by the city's anti-demolition laws, and owners of buildings in those areas are eligible for matching grants to repair the buildings. But, according to Lucy Franklin, one of the panelists and chief of preservation programs for the city, federal budget cuts are likely to eliminate grant money in the next fiscal year. In 1979, $350,000 was awarded D.C. property owners for restoration projects.
Each of the five residents of the historic districts spoke briefly about the advantages of historic neighborhoods. Elaine Hall, representing the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council, described the "small town atmosphere" of Old Anacostia, with its wooden porches, iron fences and many trees.
Ross Arnett of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society focused on the energy conservation aspects of living in an urban Victorian neighborhood.
"I can live essentially without a car," he said, adding that Victorian rowhouses save energy because they are attached to other houses and are usually brick structures.
Terry Brown of the LeDroit Park Preservation Society showed slides of the grand old homes of the neighborhood near Howard University, many of them Italianate villas designed by architect James McGill. Built in the early 1870s for whites who worked for the university, LeDroit Park, now a predominantly black community, is gravely threatened by university expansion, Brown said.
"It's been a constant fight. They've purchased a number of homes. We won't let them tear the houses down," he said, "so they've boarded them up. They have their agenda, which is expansion. We have ours, which is no, no."
In the Dupont Circle area, neighborhood preservationist Charles Robertson said the threat is from the expanding "new downtown."
However, the District's new preservation law, which took effect last year, has made it difficult for owners to demolish historic buildings.
Robertson said historic structures are being dwarfed by new buildings too big for the area. The neighborhood is trying to have the zoning regulations changed so buildings on Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle could be no higher than 55 feet. The current height limit is 90 feet. c
Representatives of civic groups in the Takoma area of the District, whose residents recently applied for historic district status for their neighborhood, were at the meeting.
"Out sleepy little community woke up on Feb. 3, 1978, when Metro inaugurated the first train ride to Takoma," Keith Kinsolving said. "Metro attracted developers who saw commercial possibilities in the neighborhood, but ignored preservation."
Takoma, according to Terry Dammann, who helped Kinsolving prepare the application, was the city's first planned commuter suburb -- built in the 1880s on the B&O Railroad line by developer B. F. Gilbert.
"We're trying to preserve what he developed," Dammann said. "Almost all the houses are still there . . . I hope we're in time."
One of the problems shared by historic districts is determining whether modern or traditional buildings should be constructed on vacant lots.
"Our policy in LeDroit Park is that it must be compatible with its immediate surroundings," Brown said. "There are both advantages and disadvantages to living in historic districts. Grants and loans are sometimes available, but you have to conform to standards."
In reponse to a remark that "downtown has no neighborhood to protect it," the panelists agreed that a coalition of neighborhood preservationists should be set up to "watchdog" downtown.
But Joseph Grano, founder of a group trying to save the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F streets NW, offered another suggestion: "People from all over the city should adopt downtown buildings," he said. "They should learn all they can about them and protect them."