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On the evening of Feb. 3, troops from the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL) refueled with Rolling Rock and hamburgers in the trenches of the Oxford Tavern, aka Zoo Bar, a Connecticut Avenue dive across the street from the National Zoo’s west entrance. The group had decamped at the bar for a consciousness-raising happy hour for Holt House—a languishing Georgian gem built between 1805 and 1827 and sited near the Zoo’s maintenance and research buildings off Adams Mill Road NW. The house is now in its second year on DCPL’s “10 Most Endangered Places” list.
The gathering was the fourth in a series of informal soirees—inaugurated last August at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, across from the Brooks Mansion in Northeast—at which folks have gathered to get to know the properties—and each other.
“This is a mixer,” explains Amanda Ohlke, chair of DCPL’s education committee, between sips of Rolling Rock. “It gets DCPL out there in a friendly way. People can make connections, meet people, and see other parts of the city.” At one end of the table, Gayle Turner, a Brookland resident and preservation activist, is caught up in a tete-a-tete with a gentleman who approached her from the bar. When it turns out the guy is just an old friend, Ohlke apes disappointment: “I thought he was trying to pick you up!”
Across the table from Turner and Ohlke, Wanda Bubriski, chair of the Holt House Task Force, hands around photos of the decrepit mansion. Originally owned by the Johnson family, who hosted folks like John Quincy Adams, the house is significant to both civic and federal history. But the zoo, its owner since 1890, closed the building, which had housed administrative offices, about 10 years ago. Now, clogged gutters and drainpipes have caused water damage to the eaves and masonry, and the facade is crumbling.
“It’s deterioration by neglect,” Bubriski says.
But Margie Gibson, the zoo’s public affairs specialist, begs to differ. “When the zoo purchased [Holt House] at the end of the 19th century, it was already in very bad condition….It would cost a fortune to renovate it. Right now, we just don’t have the money. The zoo is maintaining and keeping it as best we can.”
The DCPL folks believe the statute of moral limitations has long expired. Bubriski produces a copy of a recent “No, thank you” letter written in response to a Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) membership solicitation. Citing the neglect of the Holt House as her reason for not joining FONZ, Bubriski wrote:
“Historic properties are endangered species, too.” —Jessica Dawson