The classic Christmas card depicts a world the sender would like to live inNorman Rockwell family fireplaces, quaint country homesteads in the snow, sparkling village Christmas trees, and so forth. Mayor Anthony Williams’ 1998 card is no exception. The card’s reproduction of an oil painting by Suzanne Nicholson shows a rustic block on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in historic Anacostia. The painting looks like the kind of comfy urban neighborhood lots of Washingtonians would love to call home.
And that’s just the way the new mayor intended it. Ever since he jumped into politics last summer, Williams has associated himself with old-time D.C. symbolslike Ben’s Chili Bowl, the U Street restaurant where he staged public events, and which he mentioned fondly at his inaugurationas a way of suggesting he’ll bring back the domestic bliss and civic pride of Washington’s front-porch past. The cozy storefronts lining one of Washington’s storied neighborhoods must have seemed a perfect place for that renaissance to start.
Unfortunately, the three dilapidated real-life buildings surrounded by a blanket of broken glass and discarded Schlitz 12-packs might not survive to be part of that revival. The Anacostia Economic Development Corp. (AEDC) plans to destroy them in order to build a controversial two-story modern office and retail project. Last fall, after D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board had turned down three demolition applications, a mayoral agent reversed the board’s decision on appeal.
“I don’t think they should be demolished,” says Williams, who argues that pockmarked historic relics should be improved, not abandoned. “It’s a neighborhood I’m proud of.” The mayor says he knew the storefronts were targets when he sent the card, adapted from a community arts project painting.
Williams may yet prevail: According to Sally Berk of the D.C. Preservation League, a local group has already counterappealed to stop the demolition. And late last fall, in emergency legislation to protect neglected buildings from destruction, the D.C. Council also approved measures protecting historic buildings from the wrecking ball under pending “special merit” demolition applications, a bureaucratic category that includes the AEDC application. (The bill still requires control board approval.) Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose introduced a permanent version of the bill this week, although it currently lacks the language necessary to protect the buildings on Williams’ card.
But AEDC president Butch Hopkins says his demolition plan makes business sense, adding that he hopes to move ahead by spring. He says his application to wreck the classic storefronts won fair and squareand argues that it’s not covered by Ambrose’s bill. “When you have artists doing the buildings in watercolors, of course they look nice,” he says. “If you want to preserve historic preservation there, let us buy the pictures, and we’ll hang them in the lobby.” So much for Norman Rockwell. —Michael Schaffer