Twenty years ago, when Washington's Foggy Bottom looked very different, a lawyer named Hugh Obear drove one day by an ivy-shrouded town house on 19th Street NW, just south of G Street.
It was narrow and old and lovely, with a magnolia tree and a holly tree that reminded Obear of his home in South Carolina. The streets were lined with town houses, all brick. Hugh Obear's wife Mildred saw their studied elegance and though of Henry James' novel, Washington Square.
The Obears moved in and over the years the city changed around them. From the east and north came downtown, with rumbling traffic, Metrobuses, 12-story office buildings that blocked the morning sun. From the west came George Washington University, with classrooms, libraries, parking lots. The neighbors moved away, Hugh Obear died, and now the Obear house stands alone, the only private owned residence left on the block.
The living room is a quiet palette of Victorian pastels: the pale yellow rug, the baby grand piano, the tea tables holding leather bound books and a vase of jonquils. "My spiritual home, Mildred Obear calls it. "Left to me to be the basis of my wordly goods."
It is a small momument to another era, a brick-enclosed memory of a neighborhood whose time has passed. There are others like it scattered throughout the high-walled complex of George Washington University: apartment buildings, town houses, homes for people who are neither students nor faculty. Some of them have banded over the years into a fierce little contingent of housing preservationists - residents Foggy Bottom.
They say they live in a residential area. GW says they live in a land-locked college campus. It is a running feud that errupts now and again, and this time, the battle ground is the land around Mildred Obear.
The town house next door, identical to Mrs. since the owner died and willed it to GW. A stretch of old rowhouses along G Street is empty and in disrepair. The landmark house at 1925 F Street has been a private club since 1933, and the corner at 19th and F Streets is a parking lot.
Most of this land, like th 16 blocks to the west and north of it, is owned by GW. It is part of the enormously valuable city acreage the university has accumulated in the past decade to provide what GW officials have called a kind of endowment of land - an investment in real estate to help pay for new building and the general cost of running a university.
Now GW wants its investment in the 19th Street block to pay off. The university plans to sell the land - a jagged parcel wrapped around the Obear property - to the World Bank, with the provision that GW be allowed to buy it back in 30 years. The World Bank wants to put an office annex there, a building one block long and 130 feet high that officials say will hold about 1,200 employees. The plans call for a landscaped walkway, a small plaza of fountains and trees, and a brick "garden wall" between the 12 stories of offices and Mildred Obear's kitchen window.
"Just imagine," she said quietly last week. "The kitchen window looks out on a tree now. I can see people. Just imagine looking at a wall, how dreadful it would be."
Under the plan the university would also mover the 131-year old landmark building at 1925 F Street, to a lot on 21st Street between F and G. The private club inside would go with it. The old row houses on G Street, originally scheduled for razing, would be turned into a bookstore, cafe, and entrance to an underground auditorium.
Property taxes on the lot, which now amount to $13,000 per year, would cease to be paid, since the World Bank is an international organization and is exempt from taxation. Non-American World Bank employees also pay no income tax on their salaries, but they do pay sales tax and property tax on their own homes.
Before the World Bank will buy the land, however, GW must obtain a zoning change that will allow it to be turned into commercial property. That means both GW and the World Bank must present their cases to the D.C. Zoning Commission, and there in the public hearings, with the lawyers and bankers on one side of the room and small alliance of her preservationist neighbors on the other, Mrs. Obear is fighting back.
She is at best an unlikely challenger - a small, slightly stooped woman with a musical Southern voice and wispy strawberry hair that pokes out from under her hat. She declined to give her age. Through the first hours of a recent public hearing she nibbled uneasily at a Hershey bar, her head bowed, whispering now and then to the younger people around her. "Do I have to speak? It makes me so nervous."
When the procedural folderol had dragged on for several hours, Mrs. Obear rose from her folding chair and lifted her chin to the zoning commission. "I just want to say, sir, and I've said this before," she declared "We who oppose this are the David against this Goliath."
This sort of talk pains university officials and the project's architects, who go to some length to explain how the World Bank building will not disrupt Mrs. Obear's life. "We are putting them," said architect Vlastimil Koubek, refering to Mrs Obear's house and the matching house next door "in the best possible setting that you can put them."
The World Bank building would be 30 feet from Mrs. Obear's south wall, Koubek said. The garden wall would surround both houses, giving "a feeling of semiprivacy," and the sidewalks around the building would be brick. Pointing with pride to a photograph of his architectural drawing, Koubek described the fountains, the community auditorium, the widely spaced interior columns that would make the building easily convertible to university use after 30 years.
And it would surely be tall, Koubek said. But Mrs. Obear, after all, lives across the street from what zoning maps call downtown Washington.
"Is this going to be a three-story oasis of houses and gardens?" Koubek demanded. "It cannot be. It's too close to downtown."
That is where the university and its development opponents part ways. "GW was just a small college in a residential community" once, complained Cecilia Aptaker, who has lived in the area around 2000 F Street, her current address, for 30 years. "It's usurped everything," she said. "Now we're just a small community in the middle of a development."
"It's like Wall Street on a Sunday morning," said Chester Hodgson, a retired man who has lived on or around 21st Street for 20 years. once he walked through the campus for pleasure in the early mornings; now he said, he avoids the streets shadowed by tall buildings.
"It's just drab," Hodgson said.
There are students, too, who say the university needs to re-evaluate its master plan. There are the Fine Arts Commission and the local preservation group Don't Tear It Down, both of whom said the proposed World Bank building was violently out worded differently, but they amount to the same thing: there is a neighborhood scattered in between the high walls of glass and concrete that most of us think of as GW.
Historical records say the neighborhood began with the vision of an 18th century immigrant, a German-born named Jacob Funk. In 1765, Funk bought 130 acres of swampland in what was then Frederick County, Md. - a parcel now bordered by 23d Street, 18th Street, H Street, and the Potomac River.
Funk divided his land into 287 lots, setting aside two for the German churches he hoped would settle there. He built his own home betweenn 22d and 23d Streets, the records say, using imported Dutch bricks that were said to be smaller and harder than building materials in the new country. He incorporated the land in 1768, and in anticipation of the Germans he thought would join him by the banks of the Potomac, Funk named his little town Hamburg.
The town was not much of a success as a German settlement. Immigrants to the city, many of them indentured servants, settled farther to the east, according to the records of the local German singing group Saengerbund; the county immigrants spurned the swamp for the rich, Familiar farmland of Penssylvania, western Maryland the Shenandoah Valley.
The churches did move in, paying five pounds sterling each for their lots, and with them came a few German families who stayed on in Hamburg even after it had been merged with the new capital city. Members of the two congregations banded together - men with names like Thurrach, Otterbach, Indermayer and Krafft - and in August, 1891, they laid the cornerstone of the Concordia Church, whose white brick steeple still stands at 20th and G Streets.
With the Capitol on one side, the old brewery, glassworks, and gas plant to another, and the church in the middle, the West End grew into a comfortable jumble of the elite and the working class.
Admirals and Civil War generals, their homes glowing in polished walnut and marble and brass, lived up the street from carpenter shops and feed stores. The statesman Henry Adams lived on the third floor at 2017 G Street NW during the winter of 1869, and wrote from his apartment, "We eagles so soar, we donkeys do bray . . . we dine here very evening in state and full dress, including white cravats. Between us we know everybody, and those we don't, know us . . ."
In 1912, for the borrowed sum of $32,500, a new owner took over the old brick schoolhouse at 2023 G St., Shaded by maple trees and illuminated by an outdoor gas lamp, the building had served for years as St. Rose's Industrial School. On April 15, 1912, as morning classes got under way inside, the G Street schoolhouse became the first of the new campus buildings for George Washington University.
The university has begun nearly a hundred years earlier as Columbian College, a small Baptist school built around what is now 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW, near Cardozo High School. As it attracted more students, Columbian grew to a university and then moved downtown, establishing around 13th and H Streets NW a medical school and a campus building where, as one official put it. Columbian installed "it's first telephone, its first electric light, and its first woman."
The school changed its name to George Washington University and then, slowly, began the growth of what is now a 22,000 student univesity. Brick town houses were razed and replaced by classroom buildings, laboratories, a massive auditorium.
"I think we probably knows as much about how to live or not to live in row houses as any institution in the United States, having done it for years," said administrative vice president and treasurer Charles Diehl in a recent interview. "You can't put a mutimillion dollar university un row houses."
By the mid-1960s, GW was filling the West End with two kinds of properties - campus buildings for use by the university itself, and income-producing properties, such as the Thomas A. Edison building on Pennyslvania Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets NW. As in the proposed World Bank arrangement, GW sold the land under these income-producing properties to 30-year tenants, who then put up at their own expenses large buildings that they have promised to sell back to GW.
The working document for this high-density development is GW's Master Plan, which outlines the university's projected growth through about 1980. Critics, including GW students and preservationists outside the university, have referred to the plan as a blueprint for the wholesale leveling of a neighborhood. Diehl and other GW officials say the university has to grow, and that there is just not much neighborhood left.
To the preservationists opposed to the World Bank building, who objected to the razing of he 19th Street row houses, GW has preached compromise: the building stays, officials said finally, but so do the town houses. To the neighbors like Steve Levy, who lives across the street and keeps making phone calls and writing letters about what he calls the "concrete monster" going up across from his apartment building, the architects speak glowingly of underground parking, of garden waterfalls, of community cafes.
And to Mildred Obear, they promise a 30-foot separation and brick wall for privacy. Mrs. Obear is not mollified.
There was a time, a few years back, when her will left the house to GW. Then she learned what the master plan looked like, and Mrs. Obear cut GW out of her will.
"Here they've got a gray area," she said, recalling one of the development charts in the master plan. "It shows the 600 block of 19th Street. It says, 'High Value Frontage.'" She pronounced the words with some distaste. "That's me. "