Aside from the peeling paint around the windows, the crumbling corners of bricks on the exterior walls and the boarded-over entrances, the three long-vacant properties might blend in with their N Street NW neighbors in the Dupont Circle Historic District.
But a long-running dispute between the buildings' owner and Dupont Circle residents over the structures' maintenance, best use and historic value has put the houses into a form of condemnation proceeding.
In hearings before the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) board of condemnation, Dupont Circle residents have asked the city to require repairs on the buildings, 1745-1755 N St. A lawyer for the owner, Morton Bender, said the buildings are up to code for vacant properties.
The board of condemnation is reviewing the buildings' condition every five to seven days and will hold another session of the continuing hearings on Sept. 22, said Gwen Davis, spokeswoman for the DCRA. She said the buildings are clean and secure, two requirements for registered vacant properties. Aside from some minor brick work and roof repairs, Davis said, Bender has satisfied "90 percent of what the board has asked him to be done."
But that hasn't satisfied the neighbors, who say the vacant buildings have brought drug dealers and panhandlers to the street, pose fire hazards and are not being kept up. They accuse Bender of attempting demolition by neglect, subverting laws that forbid the destruction of historic buildings by letting them become so run down they have to be condemned.
"These vacant properties have been there 16 years," said Jeremiah Cohen, owner of the Tabard Inn, which shares a wall with one of Bender's buildings. "It has to stop."
Cohen said he fears the buildings could catch fire and destroy others on the block.
Bender did not return several calls for comment. His attorney, Mark Brodsky, declined to comment.
The latest standoff, before the condemnation board, began in May. But residents say the dispute has been building since Bender bought the sites in 1988.
Bender initially sought to convert the properties into a 75-foot-tall residential and commercial building, which would have required demolishing portions of the original buildings. His plan, along with four other proposals for high-rise buildings around Dupont Circle, prompted the city leaders in 1991 to create an "overlay district," which restricted the height of buildings in the neighborhood north of M Street.
Since then, he has had a rocky relationship with residents and business owners. In 1998, his final tenant in the building at 1755 N St. was evicted after years of disputes in Landlord and Tenant Court.
Recently, tenants in offices on N Street have written to city officials, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has written to the condemnation board to urge it to address the buildings' condition. The Dupont Circle Conservancy passed a motion in July to "encourage the immediate stabilization, restoration and rehabilitation of the properties."
Residents say the buildings are particularly important to Dupont Circle because of their histories. One, the former Gralyn Hotel, had been an inn for more than a half-century. Its owner, Polly F. Morrison, known as "the mayor of N Street," worked to preserve buildings and sites in the neighborhood before her death in 1987.
Emily Eig, an architectural historian who testified before the condemnation board in July, said the buildings are part of "an extremely important historic district."
She added, "There's great emotion about this because these are such important buildings within that block."
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who served as chairman of the Dupont Circle ANC when the "overlay district" was created, said he suspects the buildings remain vacant largely because of the longtime dispute.
"It's a prime site that could be developed into residential," he said. "The animosity and the personalities are probably what stand in the way of that happening."