The 15 Victorian-era houses stand in a solemn row along the 900 block of M Street NW on the southern edge of Washington's Shaw area. Like lonely guards at the gates of an old neighborhood, they have become a thin line confronting the city's downtown commercial boom as it pushes inexorably toward their front doors.
The people who live there want to hold that line.
Economist Barry Levy bought his mansion-like row house at 909 M St. in 1976, and is carefully restoring it. "We're here for life," says Levy's wife, Roberta Williams.
Editor Tom Bandy bought his 140-year-old frame house at 927 M in 1978, and started renovation this year. "I love it. I bought it to keep it from falling down," says Bandy.
Government scientist Carolyn Smith bought her classic federal house at 931 M in 1978 and moved in last year. "I'm committed to this house and to staying here," says Smith.
But the elegant old-world ambiance these newcomers to Shaw had hoped to preserve around them is being bulldozed into oblivion. Dozens of row houses and a turn-of-the-century apartment building just south of them have been leveled, leaving a desolate expanse of weeds, rubble and temporary parking lots that developers hope to fill with gleaming new office and commercial buildings.
This ripple effect from the downtown construction boom is well under way, spawned by the partially built city convention center three blocks south of M Street and ambitious plans by the University of the District of Columbia for joint city-private development of more land even closer to to M Street.
When Levy, Bandy and Smith bought their houses, the demolition process had slowed, and they believed the few remaining buildings scattered on the block just south of them would survive and possibly be renovated later.
Their belief was shattered last July when the Royalton, a vacant but once-elegant apartment building across the street at 918 M summarily was demolished by its owner, real estate dealer Gerome Golub. Shortly thereafter, Golub demolished two row houses on the same block.
Present zoning allows for 90-foot office, hotel and residential buildings on the block, and that is what has the residents worried.
The Royalton, a five-story structure with a wide front staircase and oversized bay windows, which appeared along with other M Street buildings in the late Peter Sellers' last movie, "Being There," dominated the the south side of the street. The neighbors thought that it would be transformed into a luxury condominium building.
"We all somehow believed that the building would be renovated," said Roberta Williams. "It was just too pretty to tear down."
Golub, who owns numerous parcels of downtown property including more than half of the Royalton block, says simply, "We considered rehabbing the Royalton but we changed our minds." Citing vandalism, fires and break-ins in the building, he said he decided to raze the structure, which he has owned since the late 1960s.
When the demolition crane showed up one morning early last July, it was a shock to the M Street residents who saw it.
Williams, who describes herself as a mother and a potter, walked her husband to the door. "We opened the door and there was a crane behind the Royalton," she said. "I was hyper upset. Barry ran for the phone, and I ran to get dressed. I remember clattering across the street in my clogs. They had lowered the wrecking ball to the ground, and I just sat on it."
"I'd never done anything like that before. I was trying to buy time for Barry, who was calling all over town to try and stop the demoliton," she said.
Williams said she refused to move off the wrecking ball for several hours until a company official came to show her that they had the proper demolition permit. Reluctantly, she said, she gave up her perch, and the wrecking ball soon began tearing into the brick and wood structure. Two more row houses were soon to follow.
In an effort to stem further demolitions, the Logan Circle Community Association filed a "historic status" application for a lone building on the 10th Street side of the block, citing it as the home of post-Civil War political leader and public works czar Alexander (Boss) Shepherd. The association, acting on behalf of the M Street residents, also applied for preservation of a 111-year-old red brick Victorian house at 900 M, owned by Golub, because of its architectural significance. The applications on both buildings are still pending.
"We figured if the Royalton went, we had to do something to protect the other buildings," says Tom Lodge, a city historian, who wrote the applications. "The Royalton was a key building."
Morris Katz, whose family owns the Shepherd house, says he was surprised when notified by the city of the building's reputed historic significance. He says his family had planned to tear down the now vacant building they have owned for more than 20 years.
"We didn't know about this one on 10th Street being a historic house," Katz said. "It upset me when I got the letter. I feel I am conservation minded. Save opera houses but not that place . . . I can't imagine any new hotel or anything being built with that building sitting there."
Golub, who has just remodeled a 70-year-old building as his own office at 10th and K streets NW, scoffs at the preservationists' interest in his building at 900 M. "That building has been vacant for 15 years," he says. "Now all of a sudden it's a gem. Why wasn't it a gem 15 years ago?"
Golub, as major land owner on the block, says, "I can see a mix on that site. Some hotel, some apartments, some commercial . . . It's premature to talk now. When I'm 99 percent sure of what I will do, I will tell the neighbors . There is no rush. That is two to five years away."
Bandy doesn't agree. As he sits in his casually decorated living room with floor-to-ceiling windows, he wonders if sunlight will be blocked out by new office buildings. But he says, "The worst thing would be if nothing happens to the block. If developed now, it would be possible to have a mixture of buildings. If we wait a few years, it will be too late. It will end up looking like K Street."