Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unstable "Stable"

A light blue Victorian home lives at 403 P Street NW with a small stable-like building behind it. There is currently a dumpster in front of the building on P Street and there are neighborhood rumors that the rear building is going to be torn down to make space for parking or expansion of the primary building. The home (built in 1890) was designed by George S. Cooper, an architect who designed about 850 buildings in Washington. The building in the rear was built in 1891, measures 15 feet by 27 feet and has many of the typical features of a stable or a small warehouse. The original permit describes it as being a “fuel house and storeroom.” No architect is listed for this building but the builder was Galloway and son.

Unlike Naylor Court NW, with a unique collection of small buildings that has been protected by law (every address) through the National Register of Landmark Historic Properties since 1990, this alley building has much less (if any) protection. The author is unaware of a unifying HPO policy that governs their decision making process about stables and other small alley buildings in the city. This little building (403 rear P Street NW) is not a part of a unique and cohesive collection, although there are several stables in the alley.

In the author’s opinion, at the very least, the building should be documented architecturally, (dimensions, inner structure etc), bricks salvaged where possible for use in historic preservation projects in the city (these bricks are in high demand), the original “hayloft doors” salvaged and eye kept out for archeological artifacts that might be uncovered during the process of its destruction, should that eventually happen.

Stables and other small rear alley buildings are prime targets for destruction, because their disappearance makes it so much easier for developers to gain access to work on the rear of the primary building. These are charming little properties that can almost always be restored, rehabilitated and adaptively reused given the expertise and the will to do so. Stables and utilitarian alley buildings are very simple structures. These buildings are a unique and characteristic historic architectural feature of Washington D.C. today, for no other major cities in America have such a sizable number of standing stables. Some go back to Lincoln’s era and are irreplaceable.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The legacy of alley life percolates out to the street in Shaw.

In many ways the lives of buildings, companies and communities function as ecology. One use gives way to another, as times and needs change. Everything is interconnected –so clearly witnessed today as we watch the downfall of practically everything. Vacant land in the late 1700’s gave way to stables and alleys which gave way to auto repair shops which gave way to either abandonment or adaptive reuse. Blagden Alley and Naylor Court like most alleys in Washington, housed people, horses and small community-based businesses. Needs were met, even if they were humble. For example, there was a bicycle repair shop in Blagden Alley in 1900 and artisan shops. Of course there were also illegal gin joints, and brothels filling somewhat less wholesome demands. It was a thriving macroeconomic culture that was easily understood and made sense. As alleys were destroyed by government intervention, focus turned to the street side of life allowing the inner core of blocks to quietly rot.

Little corner street side gas stations - once community fuel lines – eventually gave way to big oil corporations and were also gradually abandoned or destroyed. Yet all is not yet lost, for today Frank Asher has created a corner garden shop at the South West corner of 9th and N northwest called “Old City Green” on the site of a former gas station that had crumbled beyond recognition.

To invite nature back into the city by supporting local landscapers with market value product and by providing the Shaw community and D.C. at large with plants, garden supplies, training and opportunities to increase awareness of and appreciation for “our urban garden”.

This “new green growth” is helping to draw together a community in a loving and healing way, much like the early small tendrils of growth in nature after a forest fire. This is a welcome and healthy metaphor of new hope in a community that struggles daily to look for signs of anything positive. Maybe it’s time for all of us to take our eyes off the “big picture” of world economic crisis, “talking heads”, blogs and “politicomedia” and focus once again on helping each other in ways that are close to home and understandable.

In Frank’s own words…

Old City Green….Why now?

“I started out as a small gardener/landscaper, picking up dog poop and pulling weeds out of the tree boxes in Dupont Circle.” frank Asher explains, “I had to buy product from local garden centers nearby and/or nurseries out in the burbs…That was time consuming and hurting my business. There were discounts up to 20% given to industry gardeners, but it wasn’t any more than discounts given to regular “membership” customers. In essence, I was unable to really make a profit in cost of goods and supplies…Any small retail business will tell you where there profit is… I have always thought: How can I help other gardeners/landscapers like myself stay afloat? Especially now when people are cutting back. We’re still working out the business and legal issues, and hope to have to co-op up and running in full swing by mid April 09. The Landscapers Co-op will not only support the professional gardeners and landscapers it will also help community gardens and garden associations. It will help create a new urban capacity to grow food, mitigate environmental threats and cultivate a unique sense of beauty and common unity.” Noted cosmologist Thomas Berry says all communities need a compelling story. Well, said Frank: Old City Green is about honoring the connections we have with each other…How the individual can be supported by his/her immediate community of friends and a the same time, give back to the local neighborhood and the community at large.
What is strange about this is that most business people have never heard of the “triple bottom line” …I am happy that
Old City Green can introduce this model and be a part of something bigger than just making a buck.

It was 9 years ago when I started cleaning out tree boxes in my neighborhood. They had been abandoned and were full of dog doodoo and weeds... A merchant in Dupont Circle offered to pay me to maintain the boxes and in just a short time Fairies' Crossing was born. I then took a Master Gardening class and my business in planting and designing gardens just took off from there...I must admit, I am one lucky man to get to play in the dirt. I want to help bring people and plants together... Old City Green helps me make that wish come true.