Alexander "Boss" Shepherd may be turning over in his grave. As territorial governor of the District of Columbia under Ulysses S. Grant he made the capital a modern city, sculpting with his relentless construction projects a landscape that is still evident today.
Shepherd's old house, the last one he lived in, was demolished two weeks ago despite the efforts of a Logan Circle citizens' group to have it preserved as an historic landmark. Although the citizens spent more than a year preparing their case, the three-story brick house at 1125 10th St. NW never got a hearing before the Joint Committee on Landmarks, the District's preservation authority.
Every time the citizens thought they were going to get a hearing to plead their case it was canceled. That happened four times, and time finally ran out.
Critics of the joint committee, including its chairman, Ernest Harper, say the handling of the Boss Shepherd house is just one example of a pattern of confusion and ineffectiveness within that body. One of the most important appointed panels in the city, the committee is the watchdog of what is perhaps the country's toughest preservation law and has the power to define Washington's future landscape.
"If we have any more [mistakes] like this, I myself will feel obligated to resign," Harper said of the Shepherd house affair. "It was a real fiasco."
A 13-member body created to decide on applications for historic districts and landmarks, it is appointed by the mayor and jointly supported by the National Capital Planning Commision, the Commission on Fine Arts and the mayor's office.
"The Joint Committee on Landmarks is the body that reviews and determines what the local development is going to look like," said Lucy Franklin, the District's historic preservation officer. "Most people think that preservation is just putting little plaques on buildings. They don't realize we deal with multimillion dollar projects, too."
The committee's failure to meet regularly is apparently the result of a shortage of active members and a lack of incentive for members, most of whom are full-time academicians, architects and other professionals. They are paid nothing for their hours of toil over heaps of paperwork. Some of the 120 other appointed District government panels have at least a transportation allowance for members.
Mayor Barry has left two vacancies on the committee unfilled for almost two years. Two other members are habitually absent. One has not attended a meeting for more than a year and a half; the other has moved to Michigan.
Of the 20 landmark applications pending before the board, few will be heard in less than a year, although the law mandates a hearing within 120 days for properties such as the Shepherd house that are not already within an historic district.
If there has been no hearing within that time, the owner can do what he wants with a proposed landmark. Morris Katz, the property's owner, with the law on his side, ripped down Shepherd's old, decaying home.
Because the city had condemned the building, Katz had to destroy it or spend thousands of dollars to bring it up to code specifications.
Boss Shepherd's house was important, according to Tom Lodge, a member of the Logan Circle Citizens Association, because it "was the last residence actually lived in by Shepherd. According to historians, he was Washington's most important developer and builder." He added that the building was especially attractive "because it was an Italianate style, of which few are left."
Although there is no guarantee that the committee would have declared the house a landmark, the Logan Circle citizens never had a chance to find out.
After canceling the first hearing last January because Katz had not received the required 30 days' notice, the joint committee called off three subsequent hearings, despite Katz's agreement to wait another 75 days. Each cancellation costs the government approximately $300 for copying, stenographer fees and other expenses.
Lodge, a retired federal worker, said he is dismayed at what he considers "gross negligence" on the part of the committee. "It's sad that a board that is supposed to deal with preservation can't bother to do its job in more than six months," he said.
Louise Hutchinson, the member who has not attended a meeting for at least 18 months, has been ill, she said. Although she said she is incapacitated, Hutchinson has refused committee chairman Ernest Harper's request that she resign.
"I don't think membership is based strictly on attendance," said Hutchinson, an historian for the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
Another member, Harold Skramstad, moved to Michigan several months ago, but occasionally returns to Washington for meetings. He remains on the committee, Harper said, because "A member who shows up four times a year is better than nobody."
Harper, an acquisitions manager for Vitro Laboratories, said there are only eight active members, and "six of them have to agree to attend a hearing to fulfill our quorum requirments." He said members "are frequently unable to commit themselves to a hearing" because they have "so many other professional demands."
Although there has been talk by both the committee and the agencies that support it of changing the bylaws to make it run more smoothly, there is little chance that will happen in the near future, according to Harper.
"Even if the mayor appointed the rest of the staff it would not solve the problems of all that work to be done," said Lucy Franklin.
Nevertheless, Barry has come under increasing criticism from preservationists and developers trying to cope with a committee whose ineffectiveness serves the interests of neither group.
One source who declined to be named because of ties to the mayor and the committee said the joint committee "is being deliberately ignored by the mayor. He is under political pressure by developers." Although ignoring the committee would seem to be against the interests of both preservationists and developers, "That's exactly what's happening," said the source. " It doesn't make any sense."
Charles Robertson, president of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, said he believes Barry is stalling on appointments. He said he heard the mayor say at a meeting that he would not appoint any new members until after the election.
"I think the frustration with quorum problems is pretty widespread," said Nancy Taylor, chief of historic preservation for the National Capital Planning Commission. Taylor's office nominated two persons to the mayor several months ago, but has had no response, she said.
While Barry is often blamed, some of the responsibility for the committee's sluggishness apparently rests with the members.
"It's deeply embarrassing when lots of people come to a hearing and we have to cancel it because a committee member doesn't show," said member Charles McLaughlin, a history professor at American University.
Lou Robbins, former D.C. corporation counsel who helped write the district preservation law and who now in private practice represents clients affected by it, said half-jokingly that he would like to "sue both the mayor and the joint committee" to get it to do its work.
"The process is just dreadful," said Robbins, who represented Katz on the Shepherd property case. "The citizens and we have just been strung out."
Valerie Barry, the mayor's special assistant for committee appointments, said it is difficult to find qualified people to serve on the joint committee, especially for one of the specialized positions currently vacant. "How many prehistoric archaeologists are there?" she said.
But Karen Gordon, president of the preservation group "Don't Tear it Down," disagrees. "The mayor has traditionally taken the lead in making appointments," she said. With so much work before the committee, it is imperative that he fill vacancies or take some action, "and not after the election," she emphasized.
Besides of its responsibilities for decisions on landmarks, the committee is required to review hundreds of applications for alterations on properties within historic districts. The Historic Landmark Protection Act of 1978, which made all private properties within historic districts subject to preservation law, dramatically increased the committee's workload, Franklin said.
Although board members claim that their lack of compensation is not the reason hearings frequently are canceled, Rae Nero, a National Capital Planning Commission staffer whose task it is to find enough members to schedule meetings, believes that may be part of the problem.
"These people have very busy professional lives. For them to spend hours and hours of their time when they do not even get a parking place or a cup of coffee is asking a lot," said Nero.