Friday, December 31, 2010

Stable Fare on Folsom Street

 The Stable Café on 2128 Folsom Street in San Francisco ( is located in what appears to be an old stable where: - “The café features a menu drawn from owner Thomas Brian's Neapolitan Agrarian roots. The aromas of baking and fresh brewing coffee make this a welcome morning spot. Lunch is a seasonal menu with daily specials which share old family recipes with a modern twist. The evening ambiance is warm and inviting with tapas, beer, and wine. All recipes start with local, sustainable, and fresh ingredients.”

The building clearly demonstrates the architectural features of a stable, best seen in the front photograph where the second story hayloft door is open, with a dog casually observing passersby below. Above the central door is a beam that would have been used with a block and tackle to haul hay into the loft. The building is constructed of wood, which would make it very old. Bylaws at the end of the 19th Century outlawed wooden stable construction because the fire risk was extremely high. The combination of hay and open flame lighting in the mid 1800’s was clearly volatile. California may have had different building codes than D.C. at the time.

The façade has been restored at some point and adapted to its current use. Originally there would have been a large front fenestration with a heavy hinged wooden door for horses with an adjacent standard sized door for people.

It is unusual for a stable to have been built on a main street, because the majority of stables were constructed in alleys. There, out of sight from the public, the attendant smell and general commotion was unheeded. While the front of the stable café has simple corbels that are appropriate for the mid 1800’s, the window and door pilasters are more elegant than generally found in stables. It is entirely possible that the “stable” element of the café is an architectural conceit. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Folsom St. Stable Café was originally a small commercial stable or livery that fronted onto the main street.

A large segment of the second floor has been removed to create an open modern “loft” appearance. The kitchen is completely modern. For many years Washington D.C. had its own “stable-restaurant” – The Iron Gate Restaurant at 1734 N St. NW– which has recently shuttered its doors and has gone out of business.

The value of architectural historic preservation is not so much a matter of hanging on to the past but more about keeping buildings and areas of historic interest intact to whatever extent is possible so that when either the era or a novel use catches up to them, they are still there to be used. Original buildings that have been adaptively reused give people a sense of “warmth” and appreciation for historic continuity that is reaching into the future. 

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
(Jane Jacobs)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Defining a "Mews"

The concept of a 'mews' is somewhat foreign to Americans and can be a little difficult to articulate. In Rosen and Zuckermann’s The Mews of London[1] the concept of a mews is beautifully described as follows:-

            The mews of London,” wrote Henry Mayhew in 1851, “constitute a world of their own. They are tenanted by one class – coachmen and grooms, with their wives and families – men who are devoted to one pursuit, the care of horses and carriages; who live and associate one among another; whose talk is of horses (with something about masters and mistresses) as if to ride or to drive were the great ends of human existence.
            Today, well over a hundred years later, the mews still constitute “a world of their own”. Although the horses are gone, a vast maze of former stable blocks, rich in history and architectural oddities, remains. There are over six hundred of them left in modern London, most of them having no pedestrian footpath on either side; they are lined with small cottages, mostly Victorian two-storey houses; they were almost all former stables, and many still have their original stable doors and coach-house hardware; many are hidden from the glance of the casual passerby, and are entered through arches or discrete gateways, often set unobtrusively into a building façade. Though mews are to be found occasionally in other cities, their substantial number here makes them one of the factors which distinguishes London from other great cities in the world.

            The term “mews” appears to come from the Royal Mews at Charing Cross, which was built on the site where the king’s hawks were formerly “mewed”. This meant that the birds were kept in a cage or mew at moulting time, the time they shed or changed their feathers.(the word derives from the French muer, to moult which in turn comes from the Latin mutare, to change). The Royal Mews was turned into a stable for horses in the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII, and its new meaning ‘a set of stabling grouped around a yard or alley’ was certainly known in the seventeenth century.”

[1] The Mews of London by Barbara Rosen and Wolfgang Zuckermann,Webb and Bower Limited, page 10

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stable for Sale in Historic Naylor Court NW

Original stables rarely come up for sale in Washington D.C. The development drought in the years that followed the 1968 riots paradoxically protected many of the small commercial buildings in the alleys of Washington from destruction. The population declined and the need for “high density housing” simply did not exist during that era. The past decade however, has seen a rebirth of new construction and adaptive reuse of many old (large and small) commercial alley buildings.

This 19th Century stable (1878) is now on the market in Naylor Court. It has a lot size of 26’ x 95’ and a 40’ x 26” private walled rear garden. The building retains many of the original stable features such as the center “hayloft drop” fenestration on the second floor, original beams, flooring and bollards. Serendipitously, the adjacent property (52’ x 95’) is also for sale, creating the potential for a creative development project. The stable opens onto a 30 foot alley and one can park a car inside. It has been working as a printing business.

 Original Bollard and Stable Door Hinges

The author recently met with the Director of the Office of Planning to share his view that alleys and their provenance through old buildings such as stables should be more thoughtfully considered when planning block development. Given the small size of Washington (12 mile diameter) and the considerable height restriction for buildings, the value of the core of blocks should not be dismissed as simply places for trash and services (a prevailing city sentiment). Development and urban renewal in the core of blocks is consonant with preservation of the past history. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed if done with intelligence and sensitivity, each complements the other. There are many examples throughout the world and a couple in Washington. One only needs to stroll through Blues Alley and Cady’s Alley by the C and O canal to relieve any apprehension. Naylor Court has 15 old stables in various conditions and has great potential to be one of the few remaining alleys in the city that can be salvaged through a synergistic combination of restoration and new development.

If anyone is interested in the Naylor Court stable for sale, the owner can be reached at (202) 328-3286. The City Paper’s ad description is as follows:
OLD CONSTRUCTION LOFT building. First time offered. Former livery stable built in 1870’s. Rehabbed. Unique, 1 block from the Convention Center. Full-span two floors. Large (approximately 2550 square feet). Oak floor, exposed brick, thick beams. Secluded large backyard. Parking. $895,000

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Automotive Adaptive Reuse in the Farmer's Market

Just beneath the pile of watermelons in the middle of the photograph is a wonderful example of automotive adaptive reuse. The Washington DC alleys have historically been full of auto repair shops and consequently used "bits and pieces" would find themselves serving novel uses. In this case a ring gear and flywheel have found themselves serving as a utility cover on the sidewalk. Few would be able to identify the "cover" and most don't even recognized that the cover is unconventional. It's a quaint reminder of another time. The original vehicle is probably long "dead" but the donated part lives on in another capacity. Much like an organ transplant.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Stables Struggle as Auto Repair Shops Today

This auto repair shop in the Mt Vernon Square area was once part of a row of stables. The hayloft beam can easily be seen on the second floor.
It’s not easy to get an older car fixed in DC today by someone with both experience and integrity. Dealerships have long left the city and the heart of the auto repair and sales businesses on the 14th Street corridor now beats to a new rhythm of cash, croissants, coffee and corks.

The transition from stables and blacksmith shops to alley auto repair shops was one that many owners easily made in the early 1900’s. At the turn of this century new transitions continue to occur so that even if the lives of the business become extinguished, the lives of the buildings continue. Most small alley buildings have survived many reincarnations. In fact a music group practices above the garage shown above.

Today, rather than being nestled in “quiet alleys” they are often open and exposed. Customers are aggressively ticketed. It’s not an easy business to run.
 The “Cash for Clunkers” program eliminated a generation of cars (about 675,000) many of whom had miles to go, if properly maintained and repaired. People who choose to continue to service their old faithful (paid for) family vehicle are quickly running out of economical maintenance options. To make matters worse, with Zip car costs likely rising due to parking taxation and DC meter rates and enforcement hours rising,. It looks like the value of pedal power just went up in this city! 

Friday, April 9, 2010

Darryl Carter responds by protecting neglected building

Note newly boarded up windows in rear
The editor recently received the following response from Darryl Carter's office. (see Dec 9th 2009 article)
"I am sending a heart felt thanks for your letter of March 9th to Darryl Carter… I wanted to reach out your way personally since Darryl’s business travel is so intense (he’s away from DC more often than not)… in hopes of catching up with you before too much of a passage in time…  
In Darryl’s absence I will see that the building(s) are properly secured from direct elements. I sincerely appreciate your intervention and the heads-up with regard to the Historic Preservation Office. I do send assurances to you and the community, that it is not our intention to “neglect” the building(s). Quite the opposite – in our field, we routinely work with historic buildings – as a matter of course. If invited, I would very much enjoy attending upcoming Blagden Alley Naylor Court Association meeting(s) – and meeting you as well as some of our new neighbors… On this note - If you have any information to share about an upcoming meeting it would be much appreciated. Until we actually meet, you have my –

Very kind regards - 
Charles Grazioli Chief Operating Officer"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Snow Storms from the past

"President William Howard Taft and his wife Helen during inaugural parade, March 4, 1909. A snow storm forced the inauguration to take place inside the Capitol and it took 6,000 men half the night to clear over 500 wagon loads of snow from the parade route."  Library of Congress
Taft was also famous for destroying the White House stables to make room for new modes of transportation such as his 1909 Model M Steam powered automobile.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The power of five or six horses fits into Naylor Court stable

In 1887 for $800, William P Lipscomb had a brick stable with a tin roof and no plumbing built behind his 920 O Street home. One could reasonably assume that he had one or two horses, but probably not a carriage, for the stable measured only 24 feet by 28 feet with a hayloft on the second floor. This was a very common size and configuration for the average stable in the city at the turn of the century. This stable, in Naylor Court is now protected on the National Register as a National Historic Landmark - as are all of the buildings in square 0367. Like all city stables, it has lived many lives. Most recently it was the home of a lovely young couple who shared broad ranging interests including photography and a passion for vintage scooters (Vespa).

“Vespa is both Latin and Italian for wasp—derived from both the high-pitched noise of the two-stroke engine, and adopted as a name for the vehicle in reference to its body shape: the thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist, and the steering rod resembled antennae.” (From )

Some little stables in the back alleys of Washington became homes for mechanical horsepower after the need for animal horse power faded at the turn of the last century. Many became community auto repair garages meeting the needs of the poor in the neighborhood who tried to run old and failing cars on empty pockets. Some became lofts. Others were abandoned. Some simply fell down through neglect and the subsequent consequences of demolition by nature. Fortunately recognition of the sentimental and historic value of these little properties is gradually increasing in Washington. They are elegant in their utilitarian simplicity – just like the little Vespa!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stabilizing Businesses in the Alley Part II

The perimeter of a city block puts its best face forward and generally remains with a preserved and unchanging façade for decades. This is the face the world sees every day. In contrast, the cores of city blocks are in a continuous state of change and evolution. Their inhabitants reflect a wide spectrum of lives and needs over the years. There is a somewhat romantic ebb and flow to the nature of alleys that is so easily destroyed by government fiat and misguided urban planners. The cradles of creativity were rocked in many small alley dwellings and industrial lofts in DC and NY and elsewhere. Thankfully this fact and the recognition of the utilitarian value of alley space are slowly becoming recognized.

 St. Martins Lane stables turned into offices, 
homes and restaurants in Washington D.C. 
 “By utilizing the physical layout of the alley for “defensible space” and by manipulating the fears of “outsiders” toward the alley, alley residents were able to lay claim to control over their neighborhood, thus establishing a sense of sovereignty and power as well as security. This control over their own “turf” meant that alley dwellers were able to establish social control over their own community, and maintain the values and world view of that community.” (James Borchert from Alley Life in Washington)

“To skulk through an American alley is to step backward in time, downward on the social ladder and quickly to confront the world of trash collectors, garbage-pickers, weekend car mechanics and children. Refugees, all of them, from the wide-open world of the big street Out Front.

   Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted, the displaced of modern society. A few glaring exceptions – unpaved tracklets through old bucolic suburbs, or posh little stashes of elegant townhouses along refurbished alleys in Georgetown, D.C. and other Early American enclaves – silhouette themselves against a dark and vast majority. Out of sight, out of mind, the American residential alley has been the academic, geographic and social outcast of the built environment for at least a half-century.” (From Alleys a Hidden Resource by Grady Clay 1978)