Larry Quillian wants to raze his shotgun shack. So do the neighbors. So does their councilmember. In a neighborhood ruled by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, none of that matters.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Larry Quillian has learned to keep quiet. Arguing with fanatics, he says, gets you nowhere. Quillian’s adversaries aren’t the kind of zealots you read about in the papers—terrorists and the like. In fact, on the surface they look a lot like Quillian: white, semi-retired homeowners who live in carefully kept houses on Capitol Hill.
The difference, Quillian says, is ideological. Quillian is a developer who, during 34 years of living on Capitol Hill, has bought, sold, and built myriad properties throughout the community. During that time, he has won two awards for historically sensitive renovations. He calls himself a preservationist, but he’s not afraid to bring in the wrecking ball, especially if there’s a buck to be made. He doesn’t believe in the categorical imperative to save every last building.
Militant Capitol Hill preservationists, however, live by that imperative. The diverging ideals have clashed for more than 20 years over a grassy parcel of land along the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, on the eastern edge of the Capitol Hill Historic District. Quillian began acquiring the properties on the block in the mid-’60s. Of the four houses that remain standing, three are now ratty and tattered and have been vacant for decades.
Not long ago, officials on the city’s Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings voted to raze the three houses—a ruling that delighted Quillian, who would like to develop the parcel. If those old houses are gone, Quillian can turn his properties on the block into a retail or office development.
But before the cranes and bulldozers get rolling, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) must approve the demolition of the houses. And the HPRB, headed by Tersh Boasberg, has historically sided with Quillian’s
single-minded neighbors against any and all new development.
On Sept. 26, the HPRB held a hearing to discuss the matter. Were the buildings in question historically significant? And if so, were they in good enough condition to salvage?
Quillian arrived at the hearing, at One Judiciary Square, and took a seat at the back of the room, attempting to avoid the fray.
His neighbors jumped right into it. Over the course of a half-hour, a mob of Capitol Hill residents savaged Quillian. Leading the charge was Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who called the developer a “bandit.” The councilmember expressed her annoyance that a vote for demolition would clear the way for Quillian’s development plans.
Like many of her neighbors on Capitol Hill, however, Ambrose allowed her concern for the neighborhood to trump her resentment toward Quillian. For decades, she said, Quillian had held the neighborhood hostage with his derelict properties. It was time to free the neighborhood of blight, even if that meant knocking down a few old structures. “It is very clear that the residents of that area want the houses torn down and are extremely frustrated at the continued lack of any progress in finding a solution,” Ambrose testified.
But the city’s historic-preservation staff had other ideas. Stephen Callcott, an architectural historian, testified that one of the three vacant houses on the block, a shotgun house dating to the mid-19th century and set back from Pennsylvania Avenue, deserved to remain standing. The one-story, wood-frame structure shows off a vernacular style of architecture ubiquitous in many Southern working-class communities but rare on Capitol Hill. The home is narrow and rectangular, each room leading directly into the next, with no hallways in between. A shotgun blast starting at the front door of the house would sail all the way through the back window.
Nobody famous ever lived in the shotgun house—just a long succession of hucksters and bricklayers and other laborers. But the rarity of its architecture and the charm of its working-class roots had convinced Callcott that the city should hold off on demolition. “The shotgun-style house is one of only a few on Capitol Hill,” said Callcott. “It’s worth the extra effort to save.”
Nancy Metzger agreed. For the past five years, Metzger has served as the chair of the Historic District Committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS)—one of the city’s oldest and most influential preservation clubs.
The CHRS got its start back in the ’50s, when old houses on Capitol Hill were getting knocked down like duckpins. In 1978, the CHRS successfully lobbied the city to pass its strict preservation legislation. Since then, the CHRS has humbled developers and disrupted countless projects.
For the past several decades, CHRS leaders have played a pivotal role in thwarting Quillian’s plans for development along Pennsylvania Avenue, and Metzger wasn’t about to roll over this time. She testified that damage over the years to the shotgun house was striking but superficial. With a little work, the building could be saved.
Toward the end of the meeting, Boasberg called Quillian to the front of the room and demanded a response. “You don’t come off
as a great guy on this one,” Boasberg told
“I’ve noticed that,” replied Quillian.
“That doesn’t bother you?” asked Boasberg.
“I didn’t come here to talk,” said Quillian.
Shortly thereafter, review-board members decided to postpone their verdict concerning the demolition. Boasberg instructed his staff to revisit the shotgun house, take some photographs, and return to next month’s board meeting—Oct. 24—with more up-to-date information on the building’s interior.
“It angers us to have our faces shoved in this impotent mud,” Boasberg told Quillian in conclusion. “Then again, that’s the situation we’re in.”
Quillian’s debacle on Pennsylvania Avenue began with a business plan that has made millionaires of many other local real-estate magnates: Buy properties when their values are down and wait out the bad times. Great strategy—if it’s implemented properly.
The developer started out right. He assembled the right properties in the right location at the right time—choice real estate along Capitol Hill’s primary commercial corridor, snapped up for cheap following the ’68 riots, when everyone else was scrambling to get out of town.
Quillian likes to think and build big. The nine lots along Pennsylvania Avenue SE looked like the perfect site for his ambitions. The 19th-century houses sitting there in squalor had been built in times of low population density—which translated into little houses on big lots. Better yet, at one point the properties had been rezoned as commercial, so they were potentially far more profitable than residential real estate. On a 2,500-square-foot lot, you could build 5,000 square feet of retail space. In place of one ratty ruin, you could put up two new buildings. And that, for Quillian, looked like a formula for success.
So Quillian invested. And, over time, he successfully assembled a series of run-down properties along the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. All he had to do was knock down threadbare houses, wait for the market to pick up, and—voila—he could rebuild.
Provided, of course, that the city’s preservation busybodies didn’t throw down a regulatory gauntlet. In 1978, that’s what happened: The city passed historic-preservation legislation covering everything from windowpanes to carriage houses. Overnight, Quillian’s decaying, neglected houses became precious municipal assets to be saved from the wrecking ball at any cost.
Quillian had screwed up. He had waited too long to knock down the existing structures and now, by law, he could no longer touch them. He blames himself. “I admit to less than vigilance,” says Quillian. “I didn’t have my eye on the ball. Everybody knew that the Restoration Society was lobbying to get the Hill to become a historic district. But nobody, except the people involved, knew how big it was going to be.”
As it turned out, the legislation passed in 1978 recognized Capitol Hill’s as the largest historic district in the city, encompassing a sizable swath of land east of the Capitol, including approximately 8,000 structures. The eastern boundary of the historic district slices down 13th Street SE, just barely hemming in Quillian’s parcels. If the boundary had fallen just one block to the west, on 12th Street SE, as it does along stretches north of Lincoln Park, then Quillian’s development would have proceeded as planned. His dispute with the CHRS would never have materialized.
Quillian, as it turns out, was so out of touch with the historic-preservation craze that he didn’t even realize his buildings were in a protected district. He found out just after the legislation passed, when his initial applications for demolition permits for properties along Pennsylvania Avenue were rejected. Quillian was trapped.
Still, he remained optimistic. Pennsylvania Avenue to the east of the Capitol remained devoid of many commercial services. The neighborhood needed retail businesses. Surely, a solution could be worked out. Quillian would wait and see.
Seven years later, in 1985, Quillian bought the shotgun house. He liked it for strategic purposes: It was a small house on a big lot that backed up against his properties along Pennsylvania Avenue SE. More important, the shotgun house’s property had a curb cut on E Street SE, which would allow vehicles on and off the site. The historic-preservation law limits the construction of new curb cuts, making existing ones prized possessions. By purchasing the shotgun house, Quillian had secured vehicular access to his other properties.
It was time to push forward.
By combing through the minutiae of the city’s preservation law, Quillian identified two loopholes in the strictures governing demolition—economic hardship, which he knew he wouldn’t qualify for, and something called “special merit.” The legislation defined the latter as “a plan or building having significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services.”
Quillian thought he saw a way out. All he had to do was propose a development that would be good for the community. No problem. The east end of Capitol Hill had many needs.
To this end, Quillian hired an architect named Richard Ridley, who had experience with historic restoration and was in good standing with the CHRS and the HPRB.
In 1987, Ridley drew up plans for a mixed-use development that would feature ground-floor retail topped by a cluster of residential units—a sort of Main Street or New Urbanist approach toward revitalizing the commercial corridor. It’s just what city planning officials were encouraging developers to build at the time, and the kind of project they continue to promote today.
It’s also the kind of project that the CHRS claims to support. However, the society always seems to find something to pick at. In this case, the sticking point was facades. CHRS activists wanted the architect to incorporate the facades of the existing houses into the new development.
Ridley dismissed the idea. He was confident that his design would satisfy the “special merit” clause, and he requested a hearing in front of the HPRB.
CHRS members showed up at the hearing to testify against Quillian’s plans. “We went through the process,” recalls Quillian, “and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society fought us tooth and nail the whole way.” The preservation board quashed Quillian’s development scheme.
Quillian was flabbergasted. He didn’t have
a Plan B.
“That’s when I realized I couldn’t win this game with money,” adds Quillian. “The way the game is rigged, they force you to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go through the process, and then they simply say ‘No. Go back to the drawing board.’ But they never tell you what exactly you need to do to pass. It’s a ridiculous process. Most people give up. Presumably, that’s what they want.”
In this case, the CHRS and the HPRB didn’t perpetuate the lives of Quillian’s properties for long. Two years after the mixed-use development died, the city’s condemnation board voted to raze six of Quillian’s nine properties along Pennsylvania Avenue. The members of the HPRB consented, with one stipulation: that Quillian save two of the facades. But the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs later ordered that both of those facades be torn down as well.
At about the same time, Quillian offered to give the shotgun house to the CHRS for free. Under Quillian’s offer, he would maintain ownership of the land, and the CHRS would pay him rent. That way, he wouldn’t lose control over his precious curb cut. It was a compromise. The preservationists at the CHRS would be free to restore the house as they saw fit—on their own dime—and Quillian would maintain access to his Pennsylvania Avenue properties.
The society rejected the offer.
Metzger says that the CHRS members decided that investing in the shotgun house was a dicey proposition, given the animosity between them and their would-be landlord. “I don’t think it was a genuine offer,” says Metzger. “Besides, we were reluctant at the idea of Mr. Quillian holding the land.
“It was a bad idea from an investment perspective,” she adds.
Quillian says that his offer was indeed genuine, though he suspected all along that the CHRS wouldn’t accept it. “When I first made the offer, they thought it was a great idea,” recalls Quillian. “Then they did the math, and they realized it was a trap. Of course it was a trap. The only reason I did it was so that they would sit down and analyze the situation from an economic perspective.”
Quillian loves to explain his economic quandary. For the umpteenth time, he mentally punches up the numbers: First, Quillian figures, the shotgun house’s lot alone is worth about $200,000. Restoring the house would cost another $300,000. That would leave you with a house that you would need to sell for about $500,000 just to break even. Good luck, Quillian says, finding someone willing to pay that much for a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom house, designed like a trailer, sitting on the east end of Capitol Hill.
Alternatively, you could refurbish the house and rent it as a railroad-style apartment. Given the hot real-estate market, Quillian believes the refurbished facility could fetch about $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year. Minus real-estate taxes and fire insurance (which is significantly higher for wood-frame buildings), Quillian estimates that you could reasonably expect to net about $6,000 a year—roughly 1 percent return on a $500,000 investment.
“There’s no way I can restore the house, because it’s uneconomic,” says Quillian. “Not because I’m being stubborn, not because I’m fighting the Restoration Society, not because I’m mad at them. I’m only pointing out that the only solution is demolition of the buildings for new construction. It’s the only solution. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. I can’t get out of the trap economically. And neither can anyone else.”
In 1999, a school for students with special needs presented Quillian with a potential escape from his real-estate trap. Again, Capitol Hill preservationists slammed the door shut.
The St. Coletta School, a nonprofit facility in Alexandria that serves children with mental retardation, approached Quillian with an offer to buy all of his properties along Pennsylvania Avenue and the shotgun house. The school planned to knock down the remaining structures and build a new schoolhouse along Pennsylvania Avenue. Quillian accepted their proposal.
To bring the plan to fruition, St. Coletta leaders had hired a real-estate lawyer and an architect. They had secured bond financing. Their only holdup was winning the approval of the HPRB—a matter that had recently become bogged down by the objections of the restoration society.
This time, the preservationists were quibbling over certain aspects of the shotgun house. Still, school officials felt hopeful that the plans would go through. They were excited to move the institution into the District.
All they needed was a little grass-roots support for the plan. So in the January 2000 issue of Voice of the Hill, St. Coletta Executive Director Sharon Raimo wrote a letter touting the school’s deal with Quillian. In addition to listing the project’s strong points, Raimo wrote that the school was “surprised and dismayed at the opposition we have encountered from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) and the staff of the Historic Preservation Review Board.”
The letter only made things worse. Shortly after its publication, St. Coletta received what Raimo described as an irate phone call from Dick Wolf, past president of the CHRS. According to Raimo, Wolf demanded to see St. Coletta’s tax records. “I can only describe this phone call as an attempt at intimidation,” wrote Raimo.
Wolf says that he did indeed call St. Coletta and ask to see the school’s tax returns. “They were claiming that they needed certain variances due to their financial situation,” says Wolf, “and I wanted to know, ‘What are your finances?’”
Wolf argues that asking to see a nonprofit’s tax returns isn’t intimidation. It’s not even close. “People come in and look at the CHRS’s tax returns all the time,” he says. “If you are involved with a public project, then you must answer questions about what you do as an organization. If they want to deem that intimidation, maybe they’re in the wrong business.”
In February 2000, Raimo says she received another call from an opponent of the deal. And this one was much more threatening. “You whores over there got that money from your pimp [Larry Quillian],” said the anonymous caller.
Raimo felt uneasy. Maybe Capitol Hill wasn’t the right place for trying to improve the lives of handicapped children.
The following week, Raimo wrote an open letter to the Capitol Hill community, which was published in Voice of the Hill, explaining her decision to back out. “Those of you who know me are aware that I love a good fight, but this fight has taken an ugly turn,” wrote Raimo. “The actions of a few people have made it impossible to win without ‘hitting below the belt.’”
Whether intentionally or not, the CHRS had once again foiled Quillian’s plans for development. “I couldn’t believe they stopped St. Coletta,” says Quillian. “I thought, Here, at last, is the solution, the way out. St. Coletta had the community support, they had the money, and they had the right intentions. And still [the CHRS] blew them right out of the water.”
Perhaps most surprising in retrospect—given the CHRS’s opposition—is the fact that St. Coletta’s plans included saving and restoring the original shotgun house. School leaders were willing to pay $200 per square foot of the house to restore it and leave it, essentially, as a living monument to the past. Almost exactly what the CHRS wanted. Almost.
But the members of the CHRS demanded more. They insisted that St. Coletta restore not only the original shotgun house but also the subsequent additions to the building, including a run-down brick garage at the back of the property.
When defending the historical importance of the shotgun house, members of the CHRS often refer to a study conducted by EHT Traceries in December 1999, which supported saving the structure. But you’ll never hear CHRS members reference the same report’s analysis of the garage. “Its form is not intact to its original 1917 appearance, and it does not appear to have any specific significance,” concluded the study.
CHRS members chose to ignore the report’s findings and to oppose St. Coletta’s plans unless the school agreed to preserve the garage. But according to St. Coletta’s estimates, saving the garage would have cost another $200,000. And, more important, if left standing, the garage would have blocked access to the planned school building on Pennsylvania Avenue. St. Coletta officials had planned to use the curb cut on E Street to load and unload children from school buses—a process that would have been impossible at the front of the property because of the traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“It’s painfully obvious that [the CHRS] looked at St. Coletta’s plans and realized that the one way to stop them was by insisting on the importance of the garage,” says Quillian. “You’ll notice that nobody is talking about preserving the garage anymore.”
Officials at St. Coletta declined to comment for this article. They have since worked out a deal with city officials to build a facility at the former D.C. General Hospital site, just outside the Capitol Hill Historic District.
But before bowing out, Raimo toasted the CHRS for its contribution to the civic process. “How small and ridiculous are those who want for their epitaph, ‘I thwarted my neighbor,’” wrote Raimo in Voice of the Hill. “Congratulations, you have won your petty victory; I hope you’re proud.”
“I like to go and testify,” says the CHRS’s Metzger. “I find it to be an informative process. The historic-district regulations are my bailiwick.”
Metzger has invoked her mastery of the preservation code to fight every last proposed tweak to the shotgun house. The house was built sometime prior to 1857. Over the years, it has undergone countless additions, growing to include another room, a front porch, and a rear garage. Additionally, numerous upgrades were made over time. The original windows have been replaced. Electricity was added. The wood floors were redone in oak. Asphalt siding covered up wood clapboard.
Every one of the changes, in Metzger’s view, is sacrosanct. Her protective aegis extends to every last nail and brick added to the structure over the years. These additions are worth saving, Metzger and the HPRB staff argue, because they document the living history of the building. “The property illustrates the characteristic expansion of a working-class shotgun house over time, with one-story additions added to the rear that extend the overall form and floor plan of the original house,” reads a staff report about the house written for the Sept. 26 meeting. “While simple in appearance and construction, this is part of its character and appeal to a working-class audience, for whom it was relatively easy and inexpensive to alter and add onto as the family grew or as their economic status improved.”
Sure enough, those old-timer Capitol Hill families had it easy. They lived in a time before the CHRS and HPRB. Therefore, Metzger & Co. can hardly blame them for expanding their homes as they saw fit. It’s a leniency that Metzger is willing to extend to dead people—just not to her neighbors with a pulse.
Because Capitol Hill is so large, each month a sizable chunk of the HPRB hearing is devoted to adjudicating cases involving Capitol Hill homeowners and businesspeople. In general, they show up to pitch their ideas for the future, which usually involve some sort of expansion: a new porch, an extended patio, maybe some outdoor seating.
Metzger generally greets these blueprints with a show of apprehension. Depending on the case, her reaction ranges from shock to outrage. She is always disturbed.
At the Sept. 26 hearing, Metzger looked down on a wide variety of home-improvement projects—from the construction of a backyard studio to the revamping of a home’s rear facade. In each case, Metzger cited some rationale rooted in her volumes on historic architecture to bat down the proposed project.
Often in articulating her opposition to a particular project, Metzger will summon the all-important “historic fabric of the community”—calling to mind the neighborhood’s beautiful rows of red-brick Victorian houses, with their cast-iron gates and wood-frame windows. Inevitably, whatever project is being proposed is somehow at odds with this historic conformity and, therefore, not deemed worthy of approval.
Of course, the shotgun house—which Metzger considers more important for the neighborhood than allowing the construction of a school to serve the city’s handicapped children—is neither Victorian, nor red-brick, nor particularly well-endowed with cast-iron trimmings. Within the current context of Capitol Hill, it is an aberration—which is precisely why the members of the CHRS want to save it. “A building in a historic district does not have to be architecturally beautiful or historically significant…to be considered contributing,” Metzger recently wrote in a letter published in Voice of the Hill. “In the case of the Shotgun House, the rarity of its form adds to its value in the historic district.”
Members of the CHRS recognize that anomalies from the past are valuable today. But they seem unwilling to make a similar leap of faith—that today’s innovative projects might contribute to the neighborhood fabric of the future.
“The Restoration Society has literally become a band of dream snatchers,” says Quillian. “People move onto the Hill and decide they want to put a deck or an addition on their house. And the Restoration Society snatches it away from them.”
“That phrase is laughable,” counters CHRS President Robert Nevitt. “We’re not the dream snatchers. We’re the dream preservers. The vast majority of people here have a perception of Capitol Hill as a place to live where the historic fabric is preserved. Quillian is not working for that dream. We are.”
Name-calling aside, Nevitt points out that every year the CHRS grants approval to many commercial and residential renovations and expansions. Although Quillian has not been successful getting his projects approved, other developments are proceeding all across Capitol Hill.
But from an outsider’s perspective, the process of gaining the CHRS’s blessing remains murky at best. “It appears to have something to do with, one, who you are and, two, where you’re building,” notes Quillian.
One thing is for certain: If your project has landed in front of the HPRB, you’re in trouble. In fact, many cases end up with a public hearing precisely because the CHRS has logged an objection with the city’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO).
According to the guidelines set forth by the HPO, anyone who is considering construction or demolition in the Capitol Hill Historic District should consult a staff member about the plans. Nowhere in the city’s legislation, regulations, or guidelines does the law say anything about consulting neighborhood preservation clubs, such as the CHRS. And yet, by all appearances, the single most important requirement for getting something built on Capitol Hill is to placate the CHRS.
If the CHRS is cut out of the loop on a project, all it has to do is register a complaint with the HPO, and the plans will be moved from the review board’s consent calendar to its active agenda. Most first-timers misunderstand the significance of this shuffle. They think that appearing in front of the HPRB will allow them an opportunity to show off their creativity and willingness to invest in the neighborhood. In theory, they’re right. But in practice, the review board’s meetings serve another purpose—providing Boasberg & Co. with a soapbox to preach for preservation and to publicly chastise the unconverted.
For his Oct. 24 showdown with the HPRB over the fate of the shotgun house, Quillian bagged the silent treatment and went one step further: He skipped the meeting. Without the developer, the hearing flew by.
On the basis of his recent tour inside the shotgun house, Callcott presented recommendations in favor of saving the house. He argued that despite a leaky roof and water damage in the kitchen, there remained “sufficient integrity to restore the interior of the building.” He recommended denying the demolition.
Metzger echoed the opinion.
“Is there anybody else here to testify about 1229 E St.?” Boasberg asked the room full of spectators. “Anyone?”
From the back of the room, Capitol Hill Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Julie Olson raised her hand. “We want to get rid of [the shotgun house],” said Olson. “I don’t want to see it sitting there for another 20 years.”
Boasberg nodded. He’d heard the position of the neighbors before. But it wasn’t going to sway him. Quillian had once looked at the shotgun house and seen an opportunity. Now it was Boasberg’s turn to do the same.
Last year, city officials passed legislation aiming to stop “demolition by neglect.” The new law gave the city the power not only to make external repairs to vacant and neglected properties but also to make the properties livable. The city has the authority to refurbish delinquent properties using taxpayer money culled from a revolving fund. Then it can bill the property owners, who are required to pay the city back. So far, the legislation has gone untested.
At the Sept. 26 hearing about the shotgun house, Ambrose, who co-sponsored the original legislation, had testified that the law remained ineffectual. According to Ambrose, the city had neither the money nor the expertise to restore the shotgun house.
Boasberg apparently hadn’t been listening. He expressed his hope that here, at last, would be a guinea pig for the city’s new experiment in interventionist home improvement. How would this work in practice?
Presumably, the city would start by setting aside about $300,000 to gussy up the shotgun house. Next, it would hire a contractor that specialized in historic restorations. If the bid came in over budget, it would rebid the project.
If that didn’t work, maybe the city’s agents would put in the elbow grease themselves. Perhaps neighborhood-stabilization officers could moonlight as craftpersons, helping to tear down the siding, to rebuild the gabled roof, and to stain the oak floors. Inspectors with an eye for decor could help pick out appropriate light fixtures and color-coordinate the kitchen tiles.
“We will urge all of the District authorities not only to keep it waterproof but also to make it habitable,” said Boasberg. “We will recommend that the mayor put this property first on the list.”
If Boasberg’s vision pans out, the bill for all the repairs will end up in Quillian’s hands. And he says he won’t pay up.
“You know what’s funny?” says Quillian. “I don’t really care anymore. And that makes them mad. But I have other investments. I don’t have to develop the site. I can always give it to my grandchildren and let them battle the Restoration Society for the next 30 years.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.