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A District couple hope that GWU won’t tear down an old Foggy Bottom rowhouse

This rowhouse at 837 22nd St. NW, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, was built in 1886. It's the last rowhouse on the block and it does not qualify for historical preservation protection.
This rowhouse at 837 22nd St. NW, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, was built in 1886. It's the last rowhouse on the block and it does not qualify for historical preservation protection. (Frank Leone)
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One of the strengths of an urban college campus is the constant reminder that you’re spending your present in a city with a past. In Foggy Bottom, some residents fear a piece of that past is in danger of being erased. It’s the rowhouse at 837 22nd St. NW.

You probably don’t know anyone who lived there, unless you knew Violet Arlene Williams, who died in 1998. She was a linotype operator at The Washington Post. She’d learned to operate the complex typesetting machine as a high school student in Oklahoma.

Or maybe you knew Elden C. Whipple. He was living there in 1956 when he applied for a marriage license to wed June M. Lewis. Mary E. Leech once lived there — died there, actually, in 1940.

The house was built in 1886, one of dozens of similar homes that once graced a neighborhood known for its gasworks and breweries. The house was nicer than some, not as nice as others. Today, 837 22nd St. is the last rowhouse on the block. George Washington University has owned it since 2000. It most recently was home to the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. The university plans to tear down the house.

Denise Vogt and Frank Leone, a couple who live three blocks away and are active with the Foggy Bottom Association, are hoping GWU will change its mind.

“It is a bit confounding as to why they would choose to get rid of this building that really is quite lovely,” said Vogt of the two-story house, which is brick, painted white. “Once that’s gone, you just have what you have everywhere: a fast-food place, the Whole Foods, a doctor’s office.”

The couple admit GWU is entirely within its rights to remove the house.

“No notable event or famous person is particularly associated with it,” Leone said.

It doesn’t meet local or national standards for historical preservation. It is not in the neighborhood’s historic district. The university’s 2007 campus development plan leaves the spot open for redevelopment.

“We won’t be filing a lawsuit to try to save it,” said Leone, a retired lawyer. “But we think it’s still worth preserving, because one of the reasons it doesn’t qualify as a historic site under the statute is that it’s a remnant. It’s the last remaining reminder of a time when that whole square was full of nothing but middle-class and upper-class rowhouses.”

A remnant: That means the house is out of place because its place changed around it. It’s such a strange argument for tearing something down. It’s like throttling the last passenger pigeon because you’ve already killed all the others.

“It’s the last one that remains,” Leone said. “I think it’s particularly poignant.”

The house was one of several built on the street by a developer named Thomas E. Waggaman.

“He wasn’t as well known as Harry Wardman but he did some development of Cleveland Park,” Leone said.

Waggaman had a private art gallery and served as treasurer of Catholic University. He also embezzled close to a million dollars from Catholic University, dying in 1906 invalid and bankrupt.

“I think he’s kind of a fascinating character, but he’s not sufficient to save the house,” Leone said.

Leone wrote to GWU’s president, Thomas J. LeBlanc, hoping the university would consider sparing the house.

In its response, the university noted that it works to safeguard the history of the neighborhood and reminded Leone that the Waggaman house is not in the historic district.

In an email to me, university spokeswoman Crystal Nosal wrote: “GW fully supports neighborhood historic preservation and we have taken steps to preserve the historic buildings on our campus.”

This isn’t one of them. Also, it’s not accessible for people with disabilities, making it difficult for the university to use.

GWU plans to tear down the house to enlarge the existing park in which it sits.

“Our argument is the building really adds much more to the ambiance than the park,” Leone said.

Since there are no immediate plans to build anything there, Leone and Vogt wonder if the house could remain and in the future be incorporated into modern construction, as is often done around Washington.

“Without [the house], there’s no context,” Vogt said. Passersby — including students — might not know this was once a residential community, not an academic monoculture.

The university’s demolition permit is expected to be issued this month. And then?

“It’s still standing,” Leone said of 837 22nd St. NW. “While it’s standing, they can change their mind.”

Reuniting?

I’m guessing your high school did not have a reunion last year. But what about this year? If your D.C.-area school is planning to reunite, send the details — name of school, year of class, date of reunion and contact information — to john.kelly@washpost.com. Be sure to put “Reunion” in the subject line.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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