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My column this week makes the case that preservationists are in a difficult spot, since many of the city’s most charismatic buildings and neighborhoods have already been saved. But as time progresses, the definition of what we consider “historic” also changes. That window is usually understood as about 50 years, which puts us in the early 1960s already. The biggest game in town during that decade was urban renewal in Southwest, clearing out African American neighborhoods to make way for gigantic new apartment complexes.
The city has a complicated relationship with that period. At the time, Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society tells me, the destruction of old rowhouses prompted Capitol Hill residents to organize to protect their own neighborhood, fearing the same thing might happen to them. The clearance resulted in the displacement of thousands of black folks to other parts of the city, many east of the river. And urbanists have long carped about the deadness of the single-use, towers-in-the-park planning scheme.
As the buildings near the end of their natural lifespan, those who’d be happy to see them go will come into conflict with those who consider them too valuable to chuck in the dustbin of history. There’s certainly an argument for preservation: Designs for many of the buildings were selected through competitions that drew the top architects of the day. But so far, few have been individually designated as landmarks, and there haven’t even been rumblings about making it into an historic district. Which, according to architectural historian Richard Longstreth, is a shame.
“I think that Southwest is a very important frontier,” Longstreth says. “It should be seen as a precious asset, no less than Capitol Hill and Georgetown.”
Any movement towards an historic district, Longstreth says, would have to come from the residents of Southwest themselves. Which leads to tinge of irony: The leading edge of preservation could center around the very neighborhood whose creation helped give birth to the movement in the first place.
There are lots of resources for this sort of task, of course. Tom Jester, an architect with Quinn Evans who’s interested in modern buildings, would like to see a chapter of the international modernism preservation organization Docomomo in the D.C. area, and thinks Southwest could attract support from new preservationists.
“I think the younger generation is a lot more open to what history is. The temporal boundaries in their minds aren’t so fixed as to what’s historic,” Jester says. “They’re not as turned off by these buildings, and don’t think they’re ugly.”
Well, we’ll see about that.