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The residents of the 3000 block of Dumbarton Street NW have some pretty familiar gripes: Noise. Trash. Parking.
Such an array of complaints are common in gentrifying neighborhoods. But this isn’t Adams Morgan or Columbia Heights. This is a leafy block of East Georgetown—a neighborhood where gentrification isn’t an issue. The gentry built it and never left.
But among those living in the brick town houses and one genteel apartment building on the block, unrest has developed over a house renovation that’s been under way for over two years. The most conspicuous bone of contention, a roll-off dumpster covered with a tarp and surrounded by orange cones, sits on the western end of the block, occupying several parking spaces. A blue portable toilet sits next to the dumpster.
“It’s been a major imposition,” says Martha Peter, a legal assistant who has lived on the block since 1959. “I’m tired of looking at the dumpster and the mess.”
The house under renovation, surrounded by trees and sitting high above the street, has the sort of rarefied provenance one expects in a Georgetown manse. According to the records of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, the Federal-style house was built in 1801 by merchant Jeremiah Williams. In the early 20th century, it was divided into two residences; in recent years, it has been occupied by the likes of NBC radio broadcaster Richard Harkness, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, and National Gallery of Art Director J. Carter Brown.
The house’s most recent owner is Candyce Martin, a television producer and great-granddaughter of Michael de Young, the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle. A certified socialite (she’s listed in the “Green Book,” a Potomac, Md.–based guide to the social elite), she bought the larger, eastern side of the house—with seven bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths—for $4,175,000 in October 2001.
“It has one of the prettiest layouts,” Martin says of the property. “[The first floor] has the most perfect circulation I’ve ever seen.”
But while the felicitous floor plan will remain, Martin—who lives in another house, on Reservoir Road, when she’s not at her house in San Francisco—decided to completely rebuild the interior. In spring 2002, she embarked on the ambitious renovation, which involved digging out a low-ceilinged basement and gutting the rest of the house. By the end of the summer, the neighbors’ slow burn had started.
Peter says the pace of the project has been maddening. “It was painful to watch, they just worked so slowly,” she says. “When you have things like the [portable toilet] and the dumpster, it attracts problems.” One problem the project attracted was a construction worker caught squatting in the house in the summer of 2003, she says.
Mary Louise Kelly, who lives adjacent to the house, says the biggest issue has been Martin’s failure to keep neighbors updated on her plans. “She said it would take a number of months. Now we’re going well on two years,” she says. “It still looks pretty much like it did last summer.” From her upstairs window, Kelly, an NPR correspondent, says it appears no interior work has been completed.
“The feeling is that [the construction crews] planted themselves there and that they’ll give themselves as much time as they want to fuss with it,” says Alyssa Reiner, a neighbor annoyed by the construction noise, particularly the sounds of excavated boulders being tossed in the dumpster. Reiner also considers the timing unreasonable. “I think people may not have paid much attention if it was six months. Houses in this neighborhood have all been gutted,” she says. “But they don’t seem to take two-and-a-half years without being finished.”
Martin says she never made any claims about the project’s duration. Delays, she says, have been minimal. Besides a few unexpected items—a poorly supported roof, sewer issues—only a switch of contractors in March has significantly slowed the work, which Martin calls crucial after years of neglect by Brown. “We have to do this to this house,” she says. “I’m sorry it’s inconvenient.”
Among the cars arguably displaced by the construction crews is a red Mercedes convertible with vanity license plates reading “MEOW.” It belongs to unauthorized-celebrity-biographer Kitty Kelley, who lives in the western end of the house. Other neighbors claim that the construction has vexed Kelley, cracking her plaster, breaking her windows, and undermining her foundation. Martin says that is nonsense; she’s had a working relationship with Kelley throughout the project. (Kelley is away in Provence and cannot be reached for comment, a house-sitting relative reports.)
Besides the he-said, she-said matters, the row has taken on other dimensions of a high-school tiff. At least one anonymous letter made its way to neighbors in which the writer reported that Martin had trashed the neighbors at a cocktail party. (None of the neighbors would comment, but Martin reports that one letter—which she has not seen—accused her of “not wanting to live next to the Irish and the Greeks.”) Martin calls the letters fabrications, and she denies having any problems with the Irish and the Greeks, saying she gets along “wonderfully” with her neighbors on Reservoir Road and in San Francisco.
But she has ticked off at least one of her West Coast neighbors, in what has become a prime point of scuttlebutt among her D.C. neighbors: In 1999, her plans to add a 1,300-square-foot addition to her Sea Cliff home in San Francisco aroused actress Sharon Stone and her then-husband, Phil Bronstein, whose view of the Golden Gate Bridge was threatened by the addition. The San Francisco Planning Commission ruled in Martin’s favor, and she dismisses any comparisons between the two conflicts. “It couldn’t have been more different,” she says, deeming the tussle overblown. “The only person who objected was Sharon Stone.”
Neighbors got some relief earlier this year, when District authorities ordered the chain-link fence blocking the sidewalk and parking in front of Martin’s home removed. Today, a covered sidewalk stands in place of the fence. “It used to be much more visible and intrusive,” says Kelly, who is no longer forced to wheel her child’s stroller through the street.
“I’m willing to be as accommodating as I can be,” Martin says, but she claims she hasn’t heard any complaints from the neighbors, who went straight to city inspectors with the fence complaint. “They’re not objecting [directly] to me,” she says.
Though she declines to give a firm completion date, Martin estimates that Dumbarton Street will have to endure six more months of construction. CP