Early last year, Karen Leonel, a 47-year-old lawyer who lives in Kalorama, established her own historic-preservation group. She made herself executive director, installed her mother, Florence Muller, as president, and ordered historic-looking plaques. On Oct. 12, 2004, Leonel’s nascent Capitol Historic Trust was hit with a lawsuit.
The suit was filed by the L’Enfant Trust, another historic-preservation group. That organization charged that Capitol’s plaques are similar enough to its own to merit charges of trademark infringement and unfair competition. The trust points out that both designs employ “circular bronze-colored” plaques with stars in the middle and a “nearly identical cursive format.” L’Enfant also asserts that the hanging doodad at the bottom of Capitol’s plaque is not a column tip, as Leonel claims, but a fleur-de-lis—just like the one crowning its own plaque. “You stand in the street and tell me if you can tell the difference,” says L’Enfant President Carol Goldman.
To test Goldman’s theory, one must traipse to a historic district, where the plaques serve as the tweed-wearing set’s equivalent of gangland colors. The Foundation for the Preservation of Historic Georgetown, for instance, has turned lower Northwest into a nest of bronze: You can’t pick your way over a cobblestone street without being shafted in the eye by the glint of one of their arch-topped plates. The Preservation Trust stakes out Capitol Hill with its distinctive in-yo’-face golden T’s. And the L’Enfant Trust’s bursting supernova alights in any number of historical crannies, even breaking through the District boundaries on a Greek-revival row house in Old Town Alexandria. Finally, there are Leonel’s controversial plaques, which are popping up in historic districts throughout Northwest.
Many of the local trusts sustain themselves through the collection of faç#ade easements—limited rights to the exteriors of buildings. Property owners pledge not to significantly alter the appearance of their faç#ades and, as a reward, receive a fat deduction on their income taxes. The trusts, in turn, get to check the faç#ades for structural deterioration, hot-pink shutters, satellite dishes, and other nuisances for all eternity. The reward, apparently, is the work itself.
“It’s very satisfying for me, personally,” says Leonel of her “three-quarters-time” job, “since it kind of combines [architecture with] the legal aspects, because there are tax advantages.”
But there are some legal aspects that Leonel didn’t expect, such as the L’Enfant Trust lawsuit. The stakes are high: L’Enfant demands compensation for lost business and the destruction of Capitol’s plaques “and any molds, plates or other means of producing the infringing articles.”
Although just over a thousand of the District’s 25,000 historic properties have faç#ade easements, the number is rapidly growing, thanks to the aggressive marketing of for-profit entities that process easement paperwork. At the end of the line, however, are still the trusts. There are at least five of them in town, a trust glut unique to the nation’s capital, say preservation workers. In such a cramped environment, competition gets fierce.
“We don’t hold easements in Washington, because there are so many easement-holding organizations,” says Steven McClain, director for the National Architectural Trust. “There’s already conflict between some of these people, and we don’t want to be in it.”
McClain, whose trust holds easements in several states, guesses that D.C. is leading the nation in faç#ade preservation. “It’s gotta be,” he says. “Twenty-five percent [of the population] are attorneys.”
Both the Capitol and L’Enfant Trusts remain tight-lipped as to what they consider the real issue. “It’s been a fairly interesting case,” says Mark Angres, a lawyer from Arlington firm Davidson, Berquist, Jackson & Gowdey who’s representing L’Enfant, before clamming up on exactly what’s been interesting about it: “I should probably hold off on this.”
But here’s one possibility: For each easement it secures, a trust collects a contribution from the property owner that usually totals between $5,000 and $10,000. With applications flowing into the city’s historical-preservation office at four times the rate they did three years ago, L’Enfant made over $1.2 million in such contributions in 2003, according to its nonprofit tax return. Capitol, according to its 2003 return, scrounged up $68,403.
Another possible motivation is respect. L’Enfant is without doubt the grandpappy of the local trusts: It’s been slapping its distinctive sunburst seal on faç#ades since the late ’70s. Now that such preservation is becoming popular, in strolls a carpetbagging organization (Capitol was incorporated in Hagerstown, Md.) seeking to pluck the fruits of its long-suffering labor. L’Enfant has nearly 750 properties wearing its metal, but Capitol is positioning itself as a viable alternative, starry plaque and all.
Tony Nuland, a 61-year-old banking and securities lawyer, sought out L’Enfant on name recognition last year when he wanted to donate the front of his three-story row house in the Old Woodley Park Historic District. But he changed his mind, he says, when L’Enfant decided to take the month of December off, whereas Capitol offered to complete the easement by November, which better suited his tax-planning schedule. “[L’Enfant has] been one of the few games in town for a long time,” he complains. “They weren’t willing to change anything, accommodate anything….They were obdurate. Candidly, when people are like that, my reaction is: ‘Fuck ’em.’”
When it comes to plaques, however, Nuland evinces fewer strong feelings. “You know, if we were talking about Pepsi-Cola, that might be one thing,” he says. “I think they both look nice.” Other Capitol customers show similar lack of enthusiasm about their medallions. A lawyer living in the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District had to run out the front door to check on which plaque she had. Across the street, technology consultant Patrick Lyden and lawyer Robert Horvath admit they keep their plaque in a drawer.
“I guess my feeling is they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing,” says Horvath. “The plaque is totally secondary.” Seconds Lyden, “Totally irrelevant.” Thirds Horvath, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Leonel claims to place little importance on the plaque: That’s why her trust, unlike L’Enfant, doesn’t require mounting it on its faç#ades, which she says number almost 100. However, that didn’t stop Leonel from grabbing her battle-ax after hearing the charges of trademark infringement. In its counterclaim, Capitol challenges the notion that cursive lettering can be “distinct.” It also asserts that L’Enfant’s star is in fact a compass. “Because of the L’Enfant name,” Leonel explains. “He laid out the [street] grid.”
The trusts are rumbling not only in court, but also in a campaign targeted at owners of historic buildings. During the summer, L’Enfant mailed letters to people who had made a donation agreement with Capitol, according to Capitol’s counterclaim. The letters suggested they should seek a trust “with a good reputation and track record,” lest a subpar outfit “lower your property’s value by clouding its title.” Around the same time, L’Enfant published what was apparently its first and only newsletter. The lead story mentioned that the IRS is threatening to remove tax-exempt status from organizations dealing in easements. “[W]e have watched with concern the emergence of newly-minted easement holding organizations,” states the newsletter.
Leonel, however, says she’s in it for the long haul. “We happen to think the more organizations involved, the merrier.” CP