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Preservation Board Cases Reveal Sharp Dissents

Preservation Board Cases Reveal Sharp Dissents

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.]

For all its longevity and high profile accomplishments, the District’s powerful Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and its regulatory bureaucracy, the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) in the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development remain works in progress. The three cases before the Board at its regularly scheduled January monthly meeting are emblematic of this fascinating city planning, historic preservation, and economic development process — to say nothing of the controversies over architectural design issues. These issues range from color tints of brick and stone mortar to design preferences for new apartment building towers, which sometimes seem to dictate historical similarity and at other times contemporary, startlingly different styles of design.

16th Street Historic District

The first case involved the color tint, or lack of color, of the mortar used in the comprehensive re-pointing of the brick elevations of the 100 year old Larkin condominium building located at 16th and Caroline Streets, NW, between T and U Streets. HPO issued notices of violation over the color of the tint and a ticket of fines was upheld by a hearing examiner, whose adjudication order also directed the applicant — Renaissance Development, LLC on behalf of the owner — to work with HPO staff to resolve the matter, according to HPOs’ preservation planner Steve Callcott. Renaissance’s architectural historian and founder Christina Wilson instead brought the matter on appeal for HPRB resolution, and testified before the Board to the work of her firm being consistently that of historic restoration in such matters. After cleaning the dirt, grime and any other matter, the pointing and tucking work then revealed the original mortar and this, testified Wilson, her staff matched with the new mortar. This, continued Wilson, is how her firm does all of its repair and restoration jobs on structures landmarked or in designated historic districts. Slides depicting successful work in historic districts all over Washington were shown to the Board. Robert Gerber, a Larkin condominium resident owner who was designated by the condo board to be Wilson’s contact and contract monitor for the project, also testified and corroborated her account.

HPO’s Callcott argued to the Board that its regulations stipulated that the re-pointing of historic mortar required an adherence to the existing appearance of the mortar at the time a permit for the re-pointing was applied for, and that when the Larkin was rehabilitated in the 1980s, at which time a coat of gray paint was removed, its resultant appearance was red brick with a red color tint to its mortar. Callcott recommended that the Board direct the applicant to perform remediation to the mortar “by applying a tinted lime wash to the mortar that will have the effect of blending it to the color of the brick.” The Board disagreed with the staff recommendation and voted four-to-three to approve the historic restoration work performed by Renaissance Development and by a further four-to-three vote to so inform the hearing examiner who had issued the adjudication order fining Renaissance of the Board’s decision.

Dupont Circle Historic District

In a second case, both the Board and HPO reversed earlier decisions and recommendations and approved wide 14th Street curb cuts for the entry and exit of automobiles into and out of the two underground parking levels for the 140 vehicles of residents in the soon-to-be constructed nine-story Utopia Apartments on the west side of the street between T and U Streets. Curb cuts across wide sidewalks and public space on 14th Street have long been prohibited — and now especially so in light of the planned redevelopment along the street for mixed residential and neighborhood-serving street-level shops, restaurants, and performance spaces.

Moreover, the planned Utopia Apartment building backs onto a large alley courtyard that encompasses what would have been a narrow, named street connecting 14th and 15th Streets between T and U. This alley courtyard serves the trash removal, commercial delivery, and back yard parking spaces for the existing commercial establishments on both 14th and U Streets and the rear of apartment buildings and several row houses on T and 15th.

One lone, small red brick light industrial structure lies on the east side of this large alley courtyard, accessed by 15-foot wide entrances from 14th and T. Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) board member Phyllis Klein, together with her sculptor husband and a daughter, reside in this former machine shop building which has a second, ground floor entrance — a warehouse style metal door — toward the northeast corner of the shed. This second door has a small sign designating it as an artist’s studio and features bricked-up windows on the first floor and a second floor door that opens to a dead drop. With the aggressive assistance of DCCA and the Dupont Circle ANC, Klein has successfully promoted the concept of this yard-less alley courtyard, unencumbered with any sidewalks or marked pedestrian walkways, as an historic, residential alleyway mews. Her success in doing such was commended by the acting HPRB chair; its consequence to this important L’Enfant Plan street’s economic development plans for an arts and mixed residential retail pedestrian streetscape was the first HPRB approval for 14th Street curb cuts — by a vote of four-to-two. This vote served to reverse early staff recommendations that had been endorsed by the Board for the entrance and exit to and from the Utopia project’s underground parking garage to be at the rear through the alleys parallel to T and U Streets accessing the courtyard alley behind the planned building.

Shaw Historic District

January’s third case represented the successful re-design of a small, infill apartment building at 1306 8th Street, NW. At the recommendation of HPO’s Callcott, the applicant/owner of the property engaged architect Michael Valles to design a four-story structure in place of an earlier design submitted in 2006 “for a traditional Italianate-styled building capped by a mansard roof.” The successful new design resulted in a handsome contemporary structure that, in Callcott’s words, “blends a traditional form — a brick bay-fronted English basement row building — with a more contemporary pattern and type of fenestration . . . with paved multi-light casements on each floor capped by metal and wood sunscreens.”

Expressing admiration for the design, the Board unanimously approved the HPO staff report’s recommendation of concept review approval “and delegation of final construction plans to the [HPO] staff.”