The District of Columbia's historic landmarks officer, in one of the most far-reaching decisions under the city's three-year-old preservation law, has refused to grant permission to tear down the Bond Building, a turn-of-the-century office structure two blocks from the White House.
In her decision, Carol B. Thompson said MB Associates, owners of the vacant, seven-story Beaux Arts-style building on the southwest corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, had failed to prove that a larger new building proposed for the site would be of such special merit that the old landmark should be demolished. She also said the owners had not shown it would be a financial hardship to rehabilitate and rent the Bond Building.
The owners had proposed to preserve the Bond Building's heavily ornamented, buff brick facade, with its arched windows and fence-like rooftop balustrade, and in effect, wrap it around a modern building that would rise to the full 13 stories permitted by the city's zoning regulations.
James M. Christian, attorney for the building's owners, said his clients were "very disappointed at the decision and feel it was not supported by the record" at public hearings. "In all likelihood, the decision will be appealed" to the D.C. Court of Appeals, he said.
Thompson's decision was the first that used a standard that requires the preservation of a major commercial building whose value is in its appearance and its contribution to the texture of the downtown area, and not chiefly in history. The most similar previous ruling -- now being challenged in court -- forbade the razing of the old Julius Lansburgh Furniture Co. store at Ninth and F. street NW, built between 1868 and 1870 as a Masonic temple.
The Bond Building was erected in 1901 by Frank Munsey, publisher of the old Washington Times, who bequeathed it to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum trustees sold it in 1945, and since then it has gone through a succession of owners -- eight of them in one 20-year period. MB Associates bought it in 1979 for $1.5 million, sent eviction notices to office tenants and ground floor stores and applied for a demolition permit.
In 1952, the land beneath the building was sold separately to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., which rents it to the structure's owners.
The preservation decision was a major victory for Don't Tear It Down, a 10-year-old citizen action group with 1,200 members who pay basic dues of $15 a year and carry out their preservationist activities chiefly with volunteers. As it had in the case of the Lansburgh building, Don't Tear It Down spearheaded opposition to the proposed demolition at five days of hearings in February and March.
Judith Sobol, executive director of the group, hailed Thompson's decision, saying it again proved the value of the preservation law and showed it is possible to evaluate economic data as the basis for deciding the fate of a landmark.
The Bond Building demolition also was opposed by the Joint Committee on Landmarks -- a panel with members appointed by the city, the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission -- which had designated the structure as a Category III landmark. The lowest of three categories, that means the structure should be preserved if it is practicable to do so.
Thompson, a former city housing official, currently is acting director of the D.C. Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections. Under the landmark law, she serves as Mayor Marion Barry's "agent" in deciding whether structures may be demolished.