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Collapsing Inside Walls of Rundown 16th Street House Forces Tenants Out

By Megan Miller*

[Note: Photographs showing some of the interior wall collapse damage taken on the same morning can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

Six renters sharing a house on the corner of 16th and T Streets, NW in Dupont East were forced to evacuate on June 7th when the interior walls began crumbling in on them.

The property, at 1841 16th Street, is a large late 19th century mansion surrounded by other historic homes, including one built by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins. Two adjacent homes that share structural elements with the damaged house were also evacuated as a safety precaution.

Residents of the nearby buildings were shocked when emergency services personnel appeared at their doors and instructed them to leave immediately. A neighbor estimated that 15 to 20 people were abruptly turned out of their homes, telling The InTowner, “Luckily some people had relatives to stay with, but the kids that lived in that house were literally put out on the street.”

Displaced resident Stephanie Larsen, 29, a policy director at a non-profit organization, was asleep in her third floor bedroom when a housemate knocked at 2:00 a.m. on that Saturday morning. “She said, ‘Steph, my wall just collapsed,'” Larsen recalled. When the pair went to investigate, they discovered a jagged gash from floor-to-ceiling where chunks of brick and plaster had fallen away. The largest piece, which Larsen estimated at two-by-three feet, had landed on her housemate’s desk.

Larsen explained, “It was evident that the house was in disrepair since we moved in, but not being structural engineers, we didn’t realize how bad it had actually become.” A corner of Larsen’s own bedroom had been cracking for some time, but she dismissed it as a cosmetic flaw when her landlord assured her the wall was not load-bearing.

Saturday’s incident is not the first to draw negative attention to 1841 16th Street, owned by George Washington University Professor of Special Education Amy Mazur and her neurologist husband, Joseph Liberman. A news story that appeared in the May 4, 2008 issue of The Washington Post revealed that the building had required $9,000 in repairs by the city’s Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs back in 2005. The article further reported a statement by Dr. Liberman that he and his wife were unaware of complaints about the house’s condition, but were “willing to fix the problems themselves.”

When asked for comment on the situation, Professor Mazur informed The InTowner that her legal counsel, Lyle Blanchard of Greenstein DeLorme and Luchs (at one time a senior member of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ staff), should be contacted for a statement. As of press time no response was received.

Larsen, who moved into the building late in 2006, claimed that she and her fellow renters made several complaints about the condition of 1841 16th Street that fell on deaf ears. “They have known that this house was problematic for years,” Larsen said. “We said things to them, and the neighbors have been trying to get our landlords to do things with the house for probably a decade.”

Joel Lawson, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), said, “This appears to have been a serious problem property for years. It now might be a threat of demolition by neglect.”

Lawson continued, “The DCCA is going to work in close cooperation with the Dupont Circle Conservancy regarding the future of this historic corner property. We are also going to work together on appealing to the city regarding a list of problem properties around the greater Dupont Circle neighborhood. Residents of these buildings, and of the neighborhood, should never have their safety endangered.”

Richard Busch, president of the Dupont Circle Conservancy, explained his concerns about the building’s decay: “From a preservationist standpoint, the issue is that these structures contribute to the character and ambiance of our neighborhoods. When they deteriorate, they not only become safety hazards, but also begin to chip away at the historic fabric that makes these neighborhoods so unique.”

While the neighboring residents were able to return home early Sunday evening, the renters of 1841 16th Street had no choice but to relocate. Monday afternoon they donned hardhats and were escorted into the building, one-by-one to collect their property. “At the moment, all of us have accommodations for about a week,” Larsen said. “For right now, we’re going to try to stick together, and hopefully find a house. This has all been quite a harrowing experience.”

*Megan Miller is currently working toward her Masters in Journalism degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism. A graduate from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, she was enrolled in its College of Humanities and Social Sciences with majors in Social and Cultural History and English.