In the first test of an ordinance passed last year to protect architecturally significant structures, the Falls Church City Council last week voted unanimously not to allow city landowner Lawrence F. Jennings to tear down his Victorian house on East Jefferson Street.
The council vote upheld a decision by the city's Architectural Review Board to disallow the demolition. Board members said that what might have been ordinary at the turn of the century would now be extraordinary, especially since the materials and techniques used to build the structure, which is a frame house on a field-stone foundation, are no longer generally available. The case is the first to be appealed to the council since the ordinance was adopted last year establishing a procedure for the protection of old houses and architecturally significant structures.
"I think it's important they looked at the ordinance in practice and confirmed that they continued to support it," said Architectural Review Board Chairman Jeffrey Lang, who also heads the Falls Church Historical Commission.
"By grappling with the details of this thing, they demonstrated they were in favor of their policy of preservation of old houses."
Just over a year ago, the council adopted an ordinance that designated the entire city of Falls Church a historic district. The ordinance also stated that in order to demolish a residence built during or before 1910 or any other structure deemed to be architecturally important, owners needed to get approval from a three-member architectural review board. A decision by the board could be appealed to the council.
"It's a very fair ordinance," said board member Anton Schefer, who also sits on the Architectural Advisory Board. "All it does is prevent someone from coming in with a bulldozer and tearing down a perfectly good old house."
Since the law went into effect May 29, 1984, the board has heard only two requests to demolish old houses and has turned down both.
The Jennings case began last August when Jennings applied for a demolition permit to raze his house at 215 E. Jefferson St. Although Jennings resides in Sterling, he told city officials he planned to replace the structure with a single-level contemporary house that he and his wife would occupy.
The house, located in the midst of a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood near the border of Arlington, is occupied by four young men. They pay Jennings a total monthly rent of $600 and say they enjoy the house and spacious back yard, where they have set up a "nine-hole Frisbee golf course."
Several months after Jennings applied for a demolition permit, the Architectural Review Board ruled that he couldn't tear down the house, which the historical commission had determined was built no later than 1904.
Jennings appealed the decision to the council soon afterward, but the case was deferred until last week.
The council's decision came after a two-hour public hearing, at which nearly 20 people spoke, the great majority opposing demolition.
Tony P. Wrenn, an archivist with the American Institute of Architects, was brought in by the historical commission to speak in favor of preserving the building. "It is a plain house but it is a good example of its era," he said.
"The site itself is a terribly important one," Wrenn argued, explaining that North Cherry Street comes to a dead end in front of the home. "You have to stop and look at the house."
Wrenn, who said the house "evokes memories of an easier, less complicated time," ended his speech by stating that the home's "charm and value to the community would be difficult to duplicate in new construction."
The council clearly agreed.
According to Lang, Jennings now has several options. He can sell the house, renovate it, or leave it alone, as long as the house is kept up to code. He can even apply for a permit to have the house moved off his property. If his property is on the market for a year and no one buys it, Jennings can demolish it, according to the ordinance.
The city ordinance also allows him to appeal the council's decision to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, as long as he does so within 30 days of last week's ruling.
Jennings had no comment, although his lawyer, William Baskin, said, "he's contemplated it appealing the council's decision. "