Penn Quarter’s Old Post Office Pavilion, another building that had to fight for its survival.
The D.C. Historic Preservation League has begun soliciting suggestions for its 2009 Most Endangered Places list, which names sites around the city that are being threatened with development, demolition, and death by deterioration. One of last year’s selections, the Third Church of Christ, Scientist by 16th and I Streets downtown, has been embroiled in an epic, ongoing struggle for survival. What could be next year’s development battle du jour? The League’s Director of Programs Erik Hein talked about D.C.’s “largest preservation issue” at the moment, progress with one of last year’s most endangered places, and why metal rods in the ground deserved a spot on a recent list:
Is there any other purpose to this list besides highlighting endangered places around the city?
Well, that’s the primary purpose because when you highlight endangered places they become a rallying point for neighborhoods. Drawing attention to them does many things: sometimes it helps to increase pressure on people and/or developers that might own endangered resources.
How many nominations do you usually get?
It varies. Last year, it was about thirty.
How many do you select?
It’s usually about ten. We look at what we got and what seems most important.
What kind of preservation campaigns have emerged after landmarks have been cited on your list?
Well, a perfect example is the Joseph Taylor Arms Mansion, which was on the 2008 Most Endangered Places list, and is the Chancery Building of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [located at 1800 New Hampshire Ave. NW. According to the preservation league, “the building currently stands vacant and deteriorating as a classic example of demolition by neglect. The condition of the building was so deplorable that the diplomatic staff of the embassy was forced to move to a rented space elsewhere…”] The Congo government is now looking at finally doing work on the property. You know, nobody wants to get bad press for a property that they own that is contributing to neighborhood blight. By establishing our list and publicizing our list, it gets the information out there, and it certainly does lend credence and gravitas to a smaller organization or a group of concerned citizens looking to achieve some results.
So who’s usually providing these nominations?
I’ll tell you, it’s virtually everybody. We get individuals that just live next door to something that concerns them. We have community groups. We have civic associations. We have historians.
Are any places on the list for more than one year?
Is there a limit?
No. It’s gaged by the threat. St. Elizabeths campus [in Southeast] has been on the list several times because the threat has not abated. Same thing with theWorld War I Memorial on the Mall. It was on the list in 2003 and 2006.
So are there any sites that have been on your list before that you’d expect to see on your list again next year?
Probably St. Elizabeths. It’s the destination for the consolidated headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. And [St. Elizabeths] has been an issue for many, many years. That is probably the largest preservation issue in the District of Columbia at the moment.
The plans for the east campus released earlier this year included a number of original old buildings.
The buildings exist in a context, and that context is that of a campus. It’s a national historic landmark. The views from St. Elizabeths over the city are amazing. It was deliberately chosen for its bucolic setting. Basically the Department of Homeland Security is proposing huge additions to the site, [which] will become a level-five security campus. The issue of public access is very questionable, meaning we’ve got this great jewel that we may never see. And again the density and scale of the development would potentially destroy the character of the campus and the landmark.
Last year, the Historic Preservation League named the Georgetown Streetcar trolley tracks and the Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle in GloverPark to its Endangered Places list. What is the point of preserving both of these things? They’re not exactly architectural wonders. They have no function anymore.
Well, for example, the trolley tracks: Our trolley system in the District of Columbia is unlike most any other in the world. We had the challenge of having to develop a trolley system that did not use overhead wires. And this is actually the last remaining track in the District, and one of the last remaining stretches in the world. That’s significant. It represents a time that is no longer with us.
So what is the process for selecting these endangered places?
Anyone can nominate. They fill out one of our nomination forms, which you can download from the website, or we can send by mail. We require some additional information including photographs. The person has to describe the threat. They have to make a case. [The nomination materials] get distributed between two committees. They review the applications, and then they make recommendations to our board of trustees, and they vote on a final list and announce selections in May.
Photo by Kimberlyfaye from Flickr’s Creative Commons.