The site manager at the Frederick Douglass mansion said he plans to unlock the gates of the iron fence that surround the historic estate in Anacostia rather than tighten security after five acts of vandalism near the house.
Lawrence M. Burgess said that he wants the neighbors to feel more involved with the nine-acre park and that the new open-gate policy could take effect as soon as this weekend. Until now, the gates--two vehicle and one pedestrian--were locked when the park closed at 5 p.m. after the last tour.
"I have no doubt that opening it up will be a positive thing, something to balance these incidents," Burgess said.
In the five incidents, which Burgess refused to call vandalism, windows of cars in the parking lot were shot out on three occasions this year; graffiti was left on a shed; and a fire last week burned four large trees and blackened a 90-square-foot area near the house.
U.S. Park Police do call it vandalism, said police spokesman Rob McLean. "This is a serious crime, and we take it seriously," he said.
McLean said that he worked on a drug task force in the neighborhood around the Douglass house until March and that he believes keeping the gates open all night may help police make some arrests.
"That is a high-crime area," he said. "We encountered weapons violations, drugs, stolen autos, the same things that happen in any high-crime area in the city. We'd chase [the suspects], and they'd flee from us and jump the fence or go through a hole in it."
National Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman said: "My sense of this is that all the details haven't been worked out yet. I'm not sure it's a good idea to have the gates open all the time."
The fence at the Douglass house provides more security than other Park Service properties have, Kittleman said. The former homes of Clara Barton and Mary McLeod Bethune are simply locked after hours, and the memorials and monuments on the Mall have only signs saying they are closed, he said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has 20 historic buildings nationwide including the Decatur House in Washington and Woodlawn and Oatlands in Virginia, said architect William Dupont, who has responsibility for the preservation of National Trust properties. He said they don't rely on fences or security guards but use what he called "common sense."
"We have on-site residency," he said. "We have a tenant or an employee live in the building. They are a part of the security system because they are there nights and weekends."
Dupont said the organization has had very few problems.
CAPTION: Lawrence M. Burgess, manager of the Douglass historic site, says he wants the neighbors to feel more involved with the federal park. Instead of increasing security, he plans to begin leaving the park gates open 24 hours a day.
CAPTION: Above, trees were burned in a fire near the Frederick Douglass house last week, one of five destructive incidents at the historic property this year.