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Preservation Review Board’s New Members’ Questioning Past Procedures May be the New Normal; Actions Taken Surprised All

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

High-spirited, independent-minded debate, and protracted discussion of historic preservation and directly related zoning and building code issues marked the contentious May monthly meeting of the District’s powerful Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), where the merits of a proposal for landmark designation of the 31-year-old National Permanent Building on Pennsylvania Avenue 18th Street, NW vied with the consideration of rear yard additions to Woodley Park row houses on the Board’s tightly scheduled, day-long agenda.

With all four of HPRB’s newest members joining a fifth new member appointed last year and two of the three carry-over members from prior years, an audience of applicants for Board approvals, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) commissioners, neighbors of sites or structures being proposed for changes, new construction, or landmark designation, and community activists were treated to a departure from past Board practices which, in the view of many observers, too often seemed to have simply announced decisions already made. This time, however, listening to individual HPRB members repeatedly challenging Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff and the Board’s chairman, Tersh Boasberg, on such issues as their judgments regarding recent historic landmarking designations and row house additions revealed that a new dynamic had come into play.

HPRB’s afternoon session saw sparks fly between proponents of HPO and Historic Washington Architecture, Inc. (HWA)’s proposal for the landmark designation of the 1977 Hartman-Cox Architects’ tri-façade designed “corner completing” National Permanent Savings and Loan Building at Pennsylvania Avenue, 18th and H Streets, NW, the site where the popular Roger Smith Hotel previously stood, complete with its rooftop restaurant and bar.

Hotly opposed by the building’s owner, Tishman-Speyer and the Dupont Circle ANC, several HPRB members responded to this opposition with expressions of consternation over the fact that permits for new construction and significant alteration to the building had previously been issued several months before the HWA application for landmark designation was filed with HPO. Architectural historian and Holland & Knight attorney Carolyn Brown, representing the building owner, reminded HPRB members of the historic landmarking “integrity” criterion — noting that the building’s distinctive mansard roof, exterior-mounted black HVAC ducts, and grills at each level had already been removed as the building permits provided, and that other permitted renovations for the new, two-story glass enclosed top to the building and a two-story corner lobby for the building were underway.

Also underway are changes necessary for a “green” building, LEED Silver Certification, and new ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) accessibility features. Attorney Brown also explicitly referenced the two other required eligibility criteria, namely, the building’s architectural significance and the question of sufficient time having elapsed for a sound assessment of the building’s merit — usually a 50-year period. All three criteria must be met for an historic landmark designation.

The Dupont Circle ANC’s opposition focused on environmental considerations and energy efficiencies in Tishman-Speyer’s planned LEED Silver certification component of its building upgrade program, one whose goal is to bring a Class B building to that of a first class office building.

In elegant architectural language, HPO staff reviewer Tim Dennée concluded his staff report with the assertion, “[T]hus did Hartman-Cox produce a successful and subtle design combining a Lego-block clarity of elements and already conventional materials into a composition absolutely au courant, yet carefully shaped to its site and engaging in a conversation with the classical landmarks of the neighborhood.” The Pompidou Art Center in Paris and the Rome department store La Rinascente were said to have inspired principal architect Warren Cox — and the concrete “dowels” on the 18th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue façades were said to refer to the Old Executive Office Building’s beaux arts façades’ stone columns. Both Dennée and David Maloney, HPO staff director and DC State Historic Preservation Officer, emphasized in their testimony the immediate recognition this building received in the form of American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards and the inclusion of the building in the most recent editions of the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC. HWA’s landmark application echoed these same positions.

HPO’s Maloney further asserted that the Dupont Circle ANC’s green building, LEED Silver certification, and ADA concerns were “red and redder herrings.” The reality, said Maloney, was the “architectural defacement” of an historic building. Chairman Boasberg interjected that it was “a morality issue.” However, such assertions regarding the building’s relationship to the Old Executive Office Building were a hard sell to several HPRB members, and the building’s lack of integrity in its present condition was repeatedly questioned by a majority of members. Deeply troubling was the fact that building permits had been issued back in January and the building’s appearance had already been dramatically altered, resulting in a general puzzlement as to what was being proposed for landmarking.

Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson concisely articulated the question, stating in his testimony to the Board: “The ANC finds that landmarking architectural elements no longer [or] not yet in existence to be concerning. Exactly what is being landmarked here? If you are landmarking what was, it no longer is, nor will it be in the future. If you are landmarking what is, you are landmarking the shell of a building, and that makes no sense. And if you are landmarking what will be, shouldn’t you wait and see how it turns out?”

Subsequently, the historic landmark designation was defeated by a vote of five to three, thereby rejecting the HPO staff recommendation.

What transpired during the afternoon session should not have been surprising in light of the outcome of the morning’s main agenda item. It took half a dozen formal and informal votes for the Board to resolve the Woodley Park row house rear yard addition issue, three of which sought basically to adopt the HPO staff recommendation. But all three failed — this in front of the cameras providing an inaugural, live webcasting of HPRB’s public proceedings.

New Board members peppered the HPO staff with questions regarding rear yard addition precedents, guidelines for HPO consideration of such requests, and back yard descriptions in the historic district designation documents for this part of Historic Woodley Park. Strenuously protesting the HPO staff approval recommendation were 19 adjacent and nearby property owners. To the increasing exasperation of HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg, fellow Board members refused to cut short their deliberations and the Board spent over 45 minutes of its 60-minute scheduled lunch break continuing to debate this contentious issue — one that has bedeviled HPRB observers and critics, both those for and against such additions.

The Board finally agreed, by a formal vote of five to three, to approve a “lot line to lot line” rear addition that represented a reduction of two-and-a-half feet from what the applicant originally requested; it denied a request for a widow bay projection and stipulated that the materials being proposed for the new construction be re-studied by HPO staff and the applicant.