Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Blagden Alley and Naylor Court acknowledged for their historic contributions to the city.

Tear it down! Save it!

This month there is a wonderful article in the Washingtonian magazine discussing the history of historic architectural preservation in Washington D.C. by Larry Van Dyne. I highly recommend it to anyone with any interest at all in the architectural history of this city. It is insightful, well written, well balanced and filled with a myriad of facts and small vignettes of the struggle between progress and preservation.

“Robert Peck – who has held top positions at the Preservation League, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and General Services Administration – sums up the past 30 years this way: Preservationists once had to sit in the path of the bulldozer to save buildings. Then we got one of the strongest laws in the country and had to adapt to having lots of leverage.”

Blagden Alley and Naylor Court were recognized in the article for their unique role in the history of the city: - “Blagden Alley and Naylor Court preserves examples of the alley dwellings that once housed many of Washington’s working poor.”

While landmark historic designation is designed to confer protection, this does not always happen. It’s up to the community to consolidate and focus their efforts to protect buildings such as the Rhodes Tavern built in 1800 that was summarily razed as was the home of Francis Scott Key at the entrance of the bridge that now bears his name. While these were examples of failures to protect history, there are many stories about how communities rallied to save buildings that would otherwise have perished.

“Each year the Preservation League (since 1996) garners press coverage by issuing a list of ten historic places it considers the city’s “most endangered” … The local list usually includes some landmarks that are legally protected but are deteriorating or face a threat from development as well as places that have yet to gain recognition.” A nomination has been submitted for Blagden Alley and Naylor Court this year in light of recent aggressive development and destruction of landmark protected historic properties in these alleys. This article clearly demonstrates that a coalition of caring individualists can ultimately make profound differences in the world Washington D.C. historic preservation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Context and Massing in Historic Districts

These are two of the most frequent descriptors that weave through conversations when historical preservation architects discuss proposals for modern buildings in the midst of a group of historic properties. How large is the proposed structure? What is its configuration? Does it comfortably blend into the architectural environment? Does its presence somehow diminish the neighborhood? Mindful of these questions, the HPO and HPRB continually struggle to balance their approach to a first proposal that allows one to distinguish what is original from what is new, yet simultaneously encourage a tasteful continuity with the past. The final building should not appear contrived but rather, an interpretation of the spirit of the neighborhood. Builders and developers on the other hand strive to maximize the use of their allotted “footprint” of land. With the restrictions of 60/40 ratios of land use restrictive covenants, this often means “going vertical.” Getting the proportions right at the beginning is the key, for once a structure has been approved it very unlikely to be disapproved after the fact simply because the plans and products look somewhat different and (even objectionable) when the project is finally constructed in full scale. Not all of the city is designated as “historic” even though properties in non historic areas date back to the 19th Century and are identical in configuration to their protected peers elsewhere. This problem is under vigorous discussion.

The first block of P Street NE is an excellent example of one new building that “got it right” and a new addition “got it wrong.” It all comes down to values. Sometimes it takes the collective consciousness of a neighborhood to guide the decision making of all stakeholders. There are standards and guidelines and then there is common sense.

New construction on a double lot that blends elegantly with its environment.

New “pop up” construction that is visually jarring and entirely out of sync in massing and context.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Aids to Historic Preservation Research

This is a fabulous database and can be used through the MLK Library in the Washingtonian Section.

Constructing a Chronicle of the City's Structures With Facts, Figures and Fortitude
By John Kelly
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; B03


Iam not well-suited to repetitive, detail-heavy work. For example, putting the Christmas lights back in their little plastic holder -- snapping the bulbs in, looping the wire back and forth, getting it all neat enough to slide back into the cardboard box -- is the sort of task that drives me mad. After a few minutes, I want to scream and throw things.

But the world needs the detail-oriented and the persnickety. The world needs Brian Kraft.

Slim, shaven-headed, soberly dressed, Brian looks like he would have been at home in a medieval monastery copying snippets of scripture, and in a sense that's what he did. Brian catalogued every building permit issued in the District of Columbia over a 72-year period. Working to the warm hum of a microfilm machine and the click of his laptop, Brian transferred details of the more than 60,000 D.C. building permits issued between 1877 and 1949 to a database he created.

It took him seven years.

"It was a long, hard slog," Brian said. "It's not a job I would wish on other people."

The building permit is the starting point of any structure's history. Like a birth certificate, it includes all sorts of information historians might want decades later: who built the building, who designed it, what it was for, how much it cost, what its roof was made of.

Brian, 46, had been a computer science major at Penn State. He was also interested in history. After graduating, he moved to Washington, where he became obsessed with the city's neighborhoods: Who built them? When? He consulted the microfilm stored in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library's third-floor Washingtoniana Room.

"I was scrolling through the microfilm, and I'm thinking 'This is data,' in a way people in history or preservation wouldn't."

The pool of data had been dipped into here and there before. Brian proposed to drain it.

Coincidentally, David Maloney, the state historic preservation officer, had been thinking along the same lines. Brian was hired as a contractor. Said David: "It is truly amazing that we found somebody who was willing and capable of doing that, of just grinding it out."

And grinding it out is what Brian did. "People said, 'Oh, you just plugged that thing in and downloaded the data?' No, it doesn't quite work like that."

How does it work? "Just eyes and fingers."

Besides the sheer drudgery of copying information from every building permit, Brian had to compare plat maps to make it all make sense to modern eyes. For example, on July 30, 1897, Permit 131 was issued for a row of three brick houses on Yale Street NW, Lot 23, Block 26 of the Columbia Heights Subdivision. Today, Yale Street is known as Fairmont Street, and the houses are on Lots 0832, 0831, 0830, Square 2862. The house numbers have changed, too.

"I wanted it so that the data has current information converted to it," Brian said.

The result of his toil is a searchable database of permits representing 132,000 buildings. You want to find all the wood frame homes permitted on a Tuesday in Cleveland Park? All the churches built in the 1920s? All of developer Harry Wardman's houses? Now you can.

As we sat in the Washingtoniana Room, I asked Brian whether he could look up an address for me: 1440 Otis St. NE. With a few taps of the keyboard, he brought up the information. Permit issued Oct. 9, 1924. Concrete foundation. Shingles on a pitched roof. Valued at $6,000. No mention of an architect, but the builder was listed as A. Jeffery.

"He did quite a lot in Brookland and Woodridge," Brian said. Including the house my father grew up in.

Over the years, Brian became so intimate with the permits that he came to recognize the handwriting of long-dead bureaucrats. He came across odd little buildings, too, such as an airplane hangar built in Wesley Heights in 1910 and a multi-story wooden tower planned for the edge of Rock Creek Park.

The only thing he regrets is that he didn't get up from his chair more frequently and focus off in the distance. "My eyes were fried," he said. "I think it definitely hastened the demise of my close vision."

Brian finished entering the 1877-1949 permits in 2006. He's now in the process of cleaning up the data, and he's started collecting permit information from 1949 to 1958. He expects to be done in about a year and a half. After that: buildings from before 1877.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Nominated for DCPL Most Endangerd Site List

Dear Ms. McDonald,

I am nominating Naylor Court NW and Blagden Alley NW as an historic site that has become endangered because of demolition by neglect, threats of ill-advised alteration and demolition by intent. Despite being listed on the National Register of Landmark Historic Places – which confers protection status to every address in these two alleys – historic buildings continue to be destroyed. They are being replaced by modern structures, many of which appear to be far outside of the boundaries of reasonable architectural context.

These two alleys have a rich history that reflects the development of the inner core of the city of Washington D.C. as it grew. The earliest platt of the alley dates from the late 1700’s.

I have enclosed a letter of support from the President of the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Association – Richard Neidich - which followed a unanimous vote of support at the most recent meeting. There is widespread support within the neighborhood to preserve, protect and restore the buildings within these two alleys. The Historic Preservation Office has been working with me to raise the level of awareness of the historic value of these buildings. Naylor Court has the largest intact collection of stables in the city (15) and is an unpolished gem in the architectural history of the city.

In the mid 1950’s a group of residents in Foggy Bottom and Georgetown organized an effort to thwart the threatened destruction of the stables and other historic buildings along the C & O canal. This area has become a thriving and emotionally exciting commercial environment and a destination site. Blues Alley is one example of the many success stories in this collection of buildings. Naylor Court and to a lesser degree, Bladgen Alley, have as great a potential for similar future enhancement if protected now.

Nomination by the DC Preservation League on the list of Most Endangered Places will heighten the profile of this historic site and help to increase the awareness of those empowered within the government so that wise decisions in the future can be made to protect this enclave.

There is interest by a local film producer (Todd Clark of Onandon Productions) to develop a film documenting these two alleys.

At the last meeting of the Blagden Alley and Naylor Court Association a motion was entertained to review a collection of 30 years of archived material about the alley.

There are opportunities to apply for grants to survey and inventory the building within these two alleys as well as to create a history document of their past.

The community has spoken with Councilman Jack Evans about the destruction in Naylor Court and he has voiced strong support to protect the alley structures. He also said that this would never have been tolerated in Georgetown. In fact, one small stable in Georgetown was partially torn down and the neighborhood clamor resulted in the building being rebuilt restored completely. The ANC Commissioner (Mike Bernardo) has been very supportive of preserving the historic nature of the alleys as have representatives of the Mayor’s office (Mark Bjorge and Joe Martin).

In July I created a blogspot to document the history of these alleys and their current plight. It can be visited at .

The original documentation in support of the nomination for recognition as a Historic Landmark property was written in 1990 and has been included with other material of relevance.

Finally, I have included a CD with written material as well as many photographs showing the changes that have been occurring in these two alleys. There is also a video from Channel 7 News that covered the issue of the destruction of one of the stables in Naylor Court last summer.

I hope that you will rule in favor of including Blagden Alley and Naylor Court on the list of the DC Preservation League’s Most Endangered Places 2009. It would be incredibly sad to lose the opportunity to protect these two alleys from further destruction. Historic replication is no match for historic preservation.

Monday, February 9, 2009

1316 Rear P Street Naylor Court Replacement Stable

1863 stable destroyed July 2008

Replacement stable 2009

John Ruskin wrote the following in "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" (George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1925, Chapter VI, aphorism 31, pp 353-354). His words are as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. Perhaps even more so.

"Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration [meaning the reconstruction, whether total or partial, suggested by revivalism] understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with a false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as it is impossible to raise the dead, to restore [meaning reconstruct] anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled. Another spirit may be given by another time, and it is then a new building; but the spirit of the dead workman cannot be summoned up and commanded to direct other hands and other thoughts."
(quoted in Preservation and Conservation Principles and Practices - Proceedings of the North American International Regional Conference - September 10th - 16th 1972.)