The Alexandria City Council voted unanimously Saturday to deny a permit to a local developer who wants to raze the historic Gunston Hall garden apartment complex on South Washington Street to build 60 luxury condominiums and townhouses.
In a move that surprised even Mayor William D. Euille (D) -- who had remarked before the discussion Saturday that he did not think there were enough votes to save the complex -- all six council members present voted to uphold an appeal from a group of citizens of an August decision by the Board of Architectural Review, which granted a demolition permit to developer Basheer & Edgemoore. Council member Joyce Woodson (D) was absent.
Gunston Hall residents, historians and the National Park Service all opposed the demolition of the two-building, 56-unit complex, which they said has historical significance and is one of the few modestly priced apartment buildings left in Old Town.
While Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) said that she thinks the existing dilapidated 1939-era buildings are "plain Jane," she couldn't recall a time in her long tenure on the council when so many historic preservation groups had come forward to oppose a building's demolition.
"I think the community has made it clear that this property has historic value," Pepper said. "It is part of the historic fabric of the city, so I am going to be upholding the citizens' appeal."
Harry P. "Bud" Hart, an attorney for the developer, said his client plans to continue pursuing the project. Basheer & Edgemoore has a contract with the current owner to purchase the property, contingent upon approval of the building plans. Hart said that the owner will put the building up for sale for preservation and that if no one buys it, Basheer & Edgemoore can proceed with the plans to demolish.
"This is only a delay," Hart said.
Old Town Civic Association President Michael Hobbs said the neighborhood group was pleased with the council's decision. But there is no guarantee the buildings will be saved in the long run or preserved as modestly priced apartments, he cautioned.
"If this vote had not gone the way it did, those buildings would be demolished and lost forever," Hobbs said. "I don't think anybody knows yet what is going to happen, but this gives us the opportunity as a city to consider a result that would preserve the buildings as part of the historic texture of the community for the foreseeable future."
The Gunston Hall apartments occupy an entire city block at 901-915 South Washington Street and are bounded by Green, Columbus and Church streets. The brick buildings, constructed in a Colonial Revival style, are meant to evoke the spirit of historic Gunston Hall plantation, the home of founding father George Mason that sits along the Potomac River several miles south. They were designed by architect Harvey H. Warwick, who designed several other pre-war apartment buildings in the region.
The council's decision was met with sustained applause by several dozen preservationists and neighborhood activists who crowded into the meeting chambers in City Hall for the hearing, which stretched into the late afternoon.
Gunston Hall resident Jill McClure, a preservation architect, said she was pleased with the council's decision.
She had testified that it would be a "big crime" to raze Gunston Hall, because of its historic significance and the fact -- noted by other opponents of the demolition -- that the complex provides a welcoming bit of green space for drivers entering the city's south end.
Opponents of the demolition also argued that the park-like green space is an important link to the two historic cemeteries nearby -- St. Mary's Catholic Church and Freedmen's cemeteries -- as well as the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
The developer had argued that renovating the fraying apartments was not a cost-effective option and that the new building plans would keep much of the green space and mature trees currently at the site.
Anne H. Adams, an architectural historian, testified on the developer's behalf that there was nothing to distinguish this garden apartment building from the countless others built in the region during the population boom that preceded World War II.
"This building was part of a huge continuum of buildings [built] to accommodate a very serious housing shortage," Adams said. "I can find no evidence this complex was important in any way."