Sunday, September 28, 2008

“A Tour of My Losses: A Quarter Century of Preservation in Washington”

Lecture by Sally Berk*

The National Trust for Historic Preservation - Latrobe Chapter

On Tuesday September 23rd 2008, Sally Berk* gave a moving lecture of personal reflections on her life over the past 25 years as an historic preservation activist. She shared her personal principles of architectural preservation. At the end of her lecture Ms. Berk issued a challenge for others to continue her work in historic architectural preservation (for she is retiring) and a plea to support efforts to preserve St. Martin’s Convent and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Preservation is good business.
Preservation building work constitutes 50% of the building efforts in Washington D.C. and accounts for a financial contribution that is equal to that of new construction ($9.5 billion dollars for preservation and $9.5 billion dollars for new construction).

Preservation is about managing change and not about preventing it.
Change is inevitable. It is wiser to learn how to manage change and have an active and guiding hand in that process than to attempt to thwart it and lose the opportunity for melding preservation and change.

Preservation is about continuing the historic context.
The background of an area in terms of its legacy (such as music, the arts, and commercial buildings) lends a hand in contextual historic architectural preservation of that area.

Preservation is about respecting the historic context.
The juxtaposition of new construction that does not respect the historic context of the building or the area diminishes the historic legacy of the properties.

Preservation is not about copying history.
Some areas of the city that are generally thought of as “historic” have sanctioned new construction that mimics 19th Century architecture, thereby becoming a caricature of their past. Historic replication is not a substitute for historic preservation.

One should be able to read the layers of the city.
As one walks through any city, one should be able to read the layers of the past as each new era’s unique style of architecture is graciously interdigitated with that of the past. Each layer should be recognizable and appreciated for its era’s contribution to the overall gestalt of the building or collection of structures.

“Demolition isn't the only threat to historic sites. Equally threatening can be alterations, additions and new construction that comprise the iconography and/or integrity of the site. The preservationist, therefore, has the responsibility of managing change to the historic artifact. Writing a landmark nomination and obtaining historic designation are only the first steps in an ongoing process that can be controversial and contentious -- and sometimes with luck -- enormously rewarding.”

F Street Lament, Michael Berman, 2000

* After twenty-five years of preservation activism, Sally Berk has a long list of rewarding, vexing, and in some cases, unresolved preservation efforts to her name. Ms. Berk, who holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in preservation from The George Washington University, also served as president of the DC Preservation League from 1995-1998.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Alley Archeology in DC Behind the Times

"Alley housing in Washington is not very well documented. For example, because no city building permits were required before 1877, there is little documentary information on the buildings themselves. Census and city directories did not record alleys until 1858, when the City Directly listed 49 alleys with 348 heads of household. Earlier alleys and those too small to be recorded in directories as well as the conditions of alley life, require archaeological documentation." (page 58)

"A grant from the Department of the Interior funded a survey for potential nomination of the Blagden Alley Neighborhood as an historic district. This survey included researching the historic and archaeological resources within the project area. The historic resources survey involved the investigation of the architectural, social and cultural history of the area encompassing Blagden and Naylor Alleys. Archival research included reviewing tax books, primary and secondary sources, city directories, newspaper accounts, biographical sources, historic photographs and oral histories.

Squares 367 and 368 in which Blagden and Naylor Alleys are located retain a mixture of residential and commercial buildings that illustrate the historic evolution of land use in the City of Washington, particularly the independent development of property facing the public streets versus property facing the alleys."

"Only since the early 1980’s has there been any systematic archaeological work on the development of the city. …. As should be evident, archaeology of alley life in the city has barely begun, but it should have a powerful future. We are particularly hopeful that archaeology be done in the Blagden Alley and Naylor Court neighborhood with the interest and participation of the local community. As Theresa Singleton writes, “African-American archaeology should be seen primarily as a way of framing questions pertinent fo the African experience in the Americas. It is not necessary to restrict such questions to sites with an identifiable or discrete black provenience, but to any site that can illuminate aspects of African-American history and culture.” We believe that historical archaeology can help us uncover the silences of both documents and artifacts and offer a vehicle in which to examine our history and preconceptions of that history. (page 65)"

"In 1880, only 8 percent of the adult males in Borchert’s sample of alley dwellers were skilled. Most of these men were carpenters, barbers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, plasterers or brick masons. Fewer than 7 percent were white collar, proprietors or professional and of these 17 percent were “rag picker”, “rag gatherer”, “rag dealer”, “junk dealer” and 33 percent were “peddler”, jobber”, huckster and horse trader” (page 62)

"Blagden alley was one of the earliest alleys to be developed and was occupied until the 1940’s."


(Opportunities to explore DC Alley history and preserve 1860's buildings are being bulldozed by developers - e.g. 1316 rear 9th Street where two historic buildings have been razed this summer- ed)

European living comes to Washington

Washington is slowly developing a more “European atmosphere” as it thinks and plans its way into a new era of urban development. It is ironic that one of the reasons that some seem to be leaving the city - lack of parking and oppressive traffic - has become a force for change to create a bicycle and pedestrian friendly city with even fewer cars. In D.C. 37% of the population do not even own cars. Bike paths abound. With many new “grocery stores” within walking distances, the incentives to drive diminish. Melbourne has also treasured and managed to preserve its inner alleys - see “Laneways and other pedestrian amenities. It is encouraging to see Washington recognizing the value of “foot traffic” as it proceeds with the plans for development of the old convention center site.

“Redevelopment of the site [old convention center] will facilitate new connections, encouraging flow between diverse downtown communities: historic and predominantly residential neighborhoods to the north and mainly commercial office development to the south. In contrast to the imposing scale that characterizes the surrounding area, the project is designed to be human-scaled, highly permeable and pedestrian-friendly. A civic plaza forms the heart of the project and generous public spaces punctuate the whole neighborhood.”

The following was forwarded by PH - a fellow preservationist and green space planner with an interest and expertise in urban traffic flow

Laneways and other pedestrian amenities
Melbourne is filled with hidden "laneways" that cut between major streets downtown. The city has been steadily reclaiming these hidden treasures from traffic and disuse, and the laneways have become renowned for their charm, with al fresco eateries, boutique shops and bars. A number of inviting pedestrian arcades, reminiscent of those in Paris, can be found as well. Sidewalk build-outs for traffic calming are plentiful around town and are put to varied uses, including café seating and bike parking.

As he has been doing in New York City, Danish architect Jan Gehl has been working with the City of Melbourne to improve the quality of its public realm.

All in all, Melbourne is a wonderful place to explore on foot, by tram or by bike -- after you spend half an eternity getting there!
Photos: Ken Coughlin

Friday, September 5, 2008

Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Walking Tour

According to Hal Davitt (president of the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Association) historian Mike Herlong will be guiding a walking tour of these two historic alleys on Saturday September 20th and Sunday September 21st from 12:00 to 2:00. The tour will start at 9th and N at 12:00. From past personal experience, this is a wonderful tour and an opportunity to learn more about these alleys, their structures, the life in the alleys and the role of various preservation organizations. Some parts of the alley such as this wall are beginning to crumble through neglect.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hidden Alleys and Stables in NYC

New York has many forgotten alleys wherein there are nests of stables such as "Sniffen Court" (which is on the National Register of Historic Places, just like Naylor Court). You can save the bus or train fare and take a virtual trip to visit the alleys through the links below. The stables were built during the civil war - just like the recently destroyed stable in Naylor Court. "Sniffen Court" is a gated community where the stables have been tastefully preserved and adaptively reused in intelligent ways. This collection of stables is an inspiration for the development and protection of Naylor Court and Blagden Alleys. If one does not have a vision of the future, it is nearly impossible to recognize when that future is being threatened by destruction in the present! The era of the alley abolition mentality needs to fade from our memories for the reasons for which this legislation was crafted in Washington D.C. no longer exist. Now is the time to work hard to preserve what is left after years of demolition and recognize the precious nature of these little buildings.

Quote of the day

"The greenest building is the one that already exists."
by Carl Elefante AIA LEED AP