Monday, February 11, 2013

Mayor’s Agent's Decision Saves Capitol Hill Stable

A rather large and stylish Victorian home was built at 1310 East Capitol Street NE 
in 1908 for $9,000 ($208,721 today). 

According to the original permit, its accompanying stable (18’ x 28’) was built in the same year for $450 ($10,436 today). The area was affluent and bordered Lincoln Park within sight of the Capitol. No doubt, originally the home and the stable were private. The first owner was Margaret E. Murphy and the builder was William Murphy. It is not unreasonable to assume that the two Murphys were related by marriage and that Mr. William Murphy probably lived in this home — what we would today refer to as a “builder’s home.” As such it would likely have had the best materials and the best craftsmanship. The architect for both the stable and the home was C.E. Webb whose career in Washington spanned 1902 to 1921. During that time he obtained 145 permits and built 247 homes. Eventually as cars flooded into DC the stable probably became a garage, was eventually abandoned and now appears to have been allowed to rot and crumble, the way that unloved structures do. The two buildings have been owned by the House of God for 27 years. 

The stable has a vestigial back wall and no roof whatsoever, yet it appears to have been secured by “I” beams. This structure is still defined by HPO as a “building.”

Original bricks from the building have been collected and can be seen neatly organized inside the remaining walls. They await incorporation back into the walls during restoration of the stable.

The collapsing stable appears to have become a liability and impediment for the owners. A request for a raze permit was submitted to the Historic Preservation Review Board and was denied. Not accepting this decision, the owners appealed to the Mayor’s Agent who also denied the raze permit. Excerpts of the decision follow below:

The Church is housed in a former rowhouse constructed in 1908. At the rear of the lot, facing the alley, is a masonry, two-story carriage house dating from around the same time. The Church purchased the property in 1986 from another church. At that time both the church building and the carriage house were included within the Capitol Hill Historic District. The carriage house has deteriorated over the years, and its roof collapsed during a snowstorm in 2010. The Church applied to the HPRB in May 2010 to demolish the carriage house and install a parking pad. The HRPB unanimously recommended against the application as inconsistent with the purposes of the Act and urged the Church to seek other solutions for the carriage house through consultation with community organizations.
Subsequently, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued an order to the Church to make the carriage house safe through stabilization or removal. In May 2011, the Church again applied for a demolition permit. The staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) met with Church leaders and cleared another application for a permit to remove an unsafe wall. But the staff recommended to the HPRB that it not recommend approval of the application to demolish the remaining parts of the carriage house. While it admitted that the building needed extensive work, including a new roof, the HPRB stated that the building still maintained its integrity, conveyed its origins as stable, and contributed to the character of the public alley on which it stood. Church members testified about their worries about the safety of the structure and their need for parking. The HPRB voted unanimously, eight votes to zero, to recommend denial of the application, agreeing with the staff that the carriage house continued to contribute to the historic character of the neighborhood, so that demolition would not be consistent with the purposes of the Act.

While the law seems clear that the Church has not made out a case for unreasonable economic hardship, requiring the Mayor’s Agent to deny the demolition permit, the result hardly seems satisfactory. The Church now has a duty to stabilize the carriage house to address safety concerns, consistent with the order from DCRA. Merely prohibiting the demolition of the carriage house, however, will not restore it to beneficial use. HPRB urged the Church and local community groups to cooperate to stabilize and save the carriage house and share expenses, which seems highly desirable. The Church has not explored any adaptive reuse or conveyance of the carriage house through sale or lease. Indeed the Church expressed unwillingness even to consider leasing the carriage house.7           The Church feels beleaguered and lacks knowledge of real estate and preservation. Community groups ought to approach the Church with alternatives for restoring the carriage house. A renovated carriage house could generate additional income for the Church through rental of space. Our preservation law prohibits unwarranted demolition but seeks constructive solutions.
ACCORDINGLY, the demolition permit is DENIED.

________________ J. Peter Byrne, Mayor’s Agent Hearing Officer

________________ Harriet Tregoning Director, Office of Planning October 19, 2012

Reference: -

The role of the Mayor’s Agent and legal decisions are nicely explored through this link: -

Stables and other small buildings (now referred to as Accessory Dwelling Units) in the alleys of DC are disappearing through demolition by neglect, demolition by permission and demolition by stealth. The final data from the DC Alley Survey Project - undertaken by the Historic Preservation Office - comparing past maps of alley buildings to the extant buildings will be fascinating as one compares what was thought to exist by recent maps and the reality of what has been lost.

Why bother to save these rather humble structures? Because they reflect the unseen historic inner workings of the city where businesses mixed with residences. People gathered and talked and shared stories of their lives. Children played. The alleys provided essential services to the neighborhood such as bicycle repairs, blacksmith work, auto body shops, auto repair shops and workshops for artisans such as furniture repair craftsmen. In many ways they were the lubricant of the city. The alleys reflect a time when “things” were actually repaired and retained rather than being replaced and tossed. The Accessory Dwelling and Workshop Buildings in the alleys not only give a living sense of the past, but they also provide an opportunity to create living accommodations for young people of limited means who work in DC and love the city, but who cannot afford to break into the housing market. These buildings hold their own unique charm. When restored and adaptively reused they have proven to bring safety, pedestrian traffic and civility to places previously hidden from view as paths one feared to tread.

The currently evolving city code changes are a very encouraging step towards regenerating DC alley life.  Ultimately alley revitalization requires many ingredients working synergistically. Nonetheless this is an extremely worthwhile objective and a theme in urban planning that is gaining great traction throughout the country. 

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