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Preservation Board Concerned Over Interior Demolition Plan for Historic Town Mansion; Praises Hilton Project

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

When the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) met on February 3rd, having postponed its regular monthly session as a result of the city government having shut down because of a modest snow storm the week prior, only one community witness appeared for the four of five important cases on the agenda involving the Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.

After first hearing a case involving one of Cleveland Park’s hardy perennials, namely a homeowner’s application for a wider curb cut and driveway to accommodate wider automobiles, the Board was presented with a restoration and adaptive re-use proposal for the large and handsome

1885 brick and stone Romanesque mansion at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue, NW — one of the grand houses featured in the second volume of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts’ Massachusetts Avenue Architecture.

Plans for restoration of the historically intact front facade were characterized by the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff reviewer Steve Callcott as “exemplary.” And, according to the applicant’s architect Ralph Cunningham, of Cunningham/Quill representing, the owners of the property, the Zients Family Foundation, this restoration would be done by the noted Washington firm of Monarch Construction.

The back of the house facing Q Street is another matter, presenting as it now does a hodgepodge of additions and alterations, including a hardscape surface parking pad. As concisely described by Callcott, this rear elevation “has a metal oriel bay that corresponds to the stair landing in the [house’s] grand hall. A third story was added to the kitchen wing in the early 1900s, and a one-story rear wing added in 1950.” These additions are proposed for removal with a replacement wing and an at grade rear entrance being constructed in their place. HPO staff recommendations for minor design refinements and original materials consideration seemed acceptable to the applicants ‘s architect.

While praising both the architect’s and applicant’s sensitive preservation project, Callcott noted that it “will be marred by a needless alteration to the grand hall, in which the original stair, arcaded gallery and fireplace will be removed.” And without an interior landmark — or an application pending — the HPRB is without an immediate remedy to prevent the destruction of one of the finest and most intact Victorian residential interiors in the city. Board member and former HPRB chair Tersh Boasberg referred to the threatened eventuality as a “trashing,” and in a paraphrase of the staff report, referred to the fact that this interior is the last remaining residential interior designed by one of the city’s foremost designers of Victorian architecture, W. Bruce Gray. Catherine Buell, the Board’s current chair, characterized the possibility of this occurring as  being “tragic.”

And this grand interior was not even mentioned in the Dupont Circle Conservancy’s or Dupont Circle ANC’s consideration of the case; Architect Cunningham was able to answer HPRB member Elinor Bacon’s question of what community expressions on the matter were — no community members being present — by stating that both the Conservancy and the AMC voted to unanimously support the project.

There was also no mention of the historical significance of the extraordinary impact on the wider community of property’s immediately preceding occupant, The Church of the Savior, and its many philanthropic projects — from Jubilee Housing, the programs of the Festival Center, Jubilee Jobs, and the church’s daycare programs for working parents. The church had occupied the premises from 1945 until last year when they sold it to the Zients Family Foundation. The plan calls for extensive exterior restoration and interior renovation, following which the house will be used by the foundation for its offices and will also have instructional spaces to be utilized by the Urban Alliance Foundation, co-founded by Jeffrey and Mary Zients, which provides mentoring for under-advantaged DC Public School high school juniors and seniors, most of whom, according to Cunningham, live east of the Anacostia River.

The remaining three Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan cases included applications for an embassy presence for the Republic of Congo in the historic Toutorsky Mansion at 16th Street and Riggs Place and revisions to plans for expansions with additional buildings on the sites of the Hilton Washington Hotel — facing Connecticut and Florida Avenues on T Street — and of the old Italian Embassy at 16th and Fuller Streets, which backs onto Mozart Place.

The Republic of Congo’s request for a circular front yard driveway on the Toutorsky Mansion site, which would necessitate new curb cuts on 16th Street and Riggs Place, was strongly opposed by the HPO staff reviewer, Steve Callcott, who noted that “the HPRB has consistently denied curb cuts, driveways, and parking on or access through public space in the city’s row house neighborhoods, finding them to be inconsistent with the character of these historic districts.” Conversely, Callcott responded to the Embassy of the Republic of Congo’s request to create an opening in the rear yard wall, facing the public alley, and paving a portion of the small rear yard for vehicular parking as “raising no preservation issues or concerns.” And the Board agreed with Callcott, voting unanimously to adopt the staff report and to convey its findings to the District’s Foreign Mission Board of Zoning Adjustment.

No mention, however, was made of the Republic of Congo’s proposed plan to spend $2 million to restore this magnificently eccentric mansion, built in 1892, or of the pattern of curb cuts up and down 16th Street, many dating from their original construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further, neither the applicant and its attorney nor members of the community were present; both the Dupont Circle Conservancy and the Dupont Circle ANC had previously voted unanimously to oppose the application. (For background, see, “Historic Toutorsky Mansion Zoning Change Sought for Diplomatic Use,” InTowner, January 2011, PDF page 1.)

Consideration of the next two applications — both for consideration of design revisions — provided the Board with reprises of two fascinating proposals: architect Michael Beidler of Trout Design’s animated three dimensional renderings for the construction of condominium buildings behind the old Italian Embassy and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners’ Hany Hassan’s proposed revisions to designs submitted in 2008 for the Hilton Washington site.

The Hilton project calls for connecting structures between the existing hotel structure and a planned adjacent apartment tower and its lobby and parking level entrances, the perimeter berm along T Street and Florida Avenue, and design details further fleshing out plans for the glass façade, balconies, railings, sunscreens, and roof terrace for the  new apartment building.(For background, see “Hilton Washington Hotel’s Plan for Major Condo Tower Addition and Expanded Meeting Spaces Well-Received by Preservation Board,” InTowner, October 2008, PDF page 1.)

Architect Hany Hassan’s presentation of design revision for the apartment tower adjacent to the Hilton hotel drew extensive praise from board members, with several specifically commending Hassan for the care, sensitivity, and comprehensive of his plans and drawings — to say nothing of his thoughtful and articulate explanations. As recommended by staff reviewer David Maloney, the Board unanimously approved the staff report’s conclusion that “the proposed refinements improve the concept design and enhance the relationship between the building and the public space.”

One member of the public appeared to comment on Beidler’s revisions — former HPRB member Charles Robertson — who was representing the District’s Committee of 100 on the Federal City. Robertson joined in HPO staff reviewer Callcott’s praise of the new conceptual plans, which would eliminate an previously proposed main tower and a secondary tower facing Mozart Place, thus reducing the apparent height of the overall building. Also praised was the elimination of the overhang of the larger Mozart Place facing structures over the subordinate five-story Fuller Street structure. Further, Robertson expressed continuing concern over the materials and fenestration of a small, “hyphen” structure — previously proposed to be all glass — which serves to connect the old embassy building with the new condominium.

Board members generally agreed and voted to adopt the staff report and recommendations. Chair Catherine Buell expressed concerns over the absence of any community representatives or immediate neighbors. Subsequent HPRB hearings on the matter, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment hearings of the applicants requesting for a planned unit development (PUD) for the site will afford further opportunities for the community to weigh in on this important project.