City Paper is not for tourists
Well-heeled dog owners can’t get over the Freemasons’ new fence.
Nobody likes to clean up dog poop, and Rob Sansbury is no exception. But in recent years, the superintendent of the Temple of the Scottish Rite, a fortress of Freemasonry at 16th Street NW, has been doing double duty on pooper-scooper patrol thanks to some inconsiderate neighbors.
The temple’s back yard sprawls over a sizable chunk of real estate. Fences enclose most of the area, which is roughly the size of a football field and includes a grassy field, a community garden, and a bust of Freemason dynamo George Washington. Until recently, a corner of the property remained open to 15th Street.
For years, local residents used the patch of the temple’s property to unleash their hounds. Sansbury and his crew were left to pick up. “It was just a real hassle,” says Sansbury.
In January, the leaders of the temple decided to reclaim their territory by erecting a fence around the de facto dog park. When construction commenced, however, neighborhood watchdogs howled. John F. James, a local resident and a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sounded the alarm. Ostensibly, it was the fence’s chain-link material that set him off.
“I protest the total disregard to the historic fabric of the neighborhood by choosing Chain Link as their fence of choice,” wrote James in a letter to the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board.
For preservationists like James, the sight of a chain-link fence is like the splash of Mad Dog 20/20 on the palate of a wine connoisseur: revolting. Chain-link fences elicit gags and curses from critics throughout the city. But in the District’s 25 historic neighborhoods, chain-link fences are more than taboo: They are the contraband of construction.
The Masonic temple falls within the Greater Fourteenth Street Historic District, where new fences must adhere to strict specifications. They must imitate the wrought-iron style that was all the rage during the 19th century. And, when abutting a sidewalk, they can’t exceed 42 inches in height.
Temple officials say they built the fence not only to keep out dog-walkers but also to heighten security. A 3-and-a-half-foot barricade might work to keep out poodles and beagles, but the Freemasons needed something taller to bar the vicinity’s more athletic greyhounds and Rottweilers.
Nevertheless, the rules governing historic neighborhoods weren’t made to be broken. In February, city inspectors ordered the Freemasons to stop work on the fence—a decree that the temple’s contractors subsequently ignored. As a result, the Freemasons were hit with $1,500 in fines.
On Thursday, Feb. 28, Todd Carton, chief financial officer of Supreme Council 33 of Freemasons, appeared before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board to plead for a permit that would allow the fence to stay put without incurring further penalties.
As Carton pointed out to the 11-member committee, the Fourteenth Street area wasn’t made a historic district until 1994, and the neighborhood surrounding the temple thus is rife with chain-link fences that were grandfathered in. Carton also noted that, with the completion of a simple paint job, the new fence would be architecturally and aesthetically identical to the existing chain-link fence that runs along the rest of the property’s 15th Street perimeter. “Having the two segments match presents a better and more orderly appearance than having different fence styles within this short space,” argued Carton.
Members of the board listened unsympathetically, aghast that Carton and company dared to besmirch the historic property—the building was completed in 1911—with additional chain-link sacrilege. Tersh Boasberg, chair of the review board, sat on the dais looking down at Carton with the alarm of a disapproving father. He told Carton that the fence had touched off a “minor firestorm in the neighborhood”—at least among dog-owners-cum-historic-preservationists.
According to Stephen Callcott, of the District’s Historic Preservation Division, the firestorm consisted of roughly a dozen complaints from incensed neighbors, most of whom, like James, live across the street from the temple in the Bishop’s Gate Condominiums.
An informal survey of six of the residents who filed formal complaints against the fence shows a strong correlation between nostalgia for the dog park and objection to chain-link. To sum up the anti-fence constituency: Four were active dog-walkers who, prior to the fence’s construction, frequented the park. One had used the park until his dog died, and one says he would have used the park were it not for his pooch’s antisocial behavior.
James, who owns an American Staffordshire terrier and once enjoyed the convivial atmosphere of the dog park, says that he attended the meeting to protest the fence, not his dog’s banishment from the property. “The reason I testified was not the loss of the dog park,” says James. “The chain-link fence is extremely offensive. I would support an iron fence. It’s their land—they should do as they please.”
Without hesitation, the board members voted unanimously to deny the Freemasons a permit. For champions of the city’s historic aesthetic, the decision marked a victory. But Carton, for one, suspects that ulterior motives were driving the uproar. “I think that certainly a portion of the opposition was motivated by people who have been, and would like to continue, walking their dogs on our private property,” says Carton.
James’ terrier might soon be in for more good times. But before the fence comes down, temple officials plan on proposing one more compromise to the review board. In the meantime, the fence remains standing. Piles of dog poo already line its outskirts. CP