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The District Shows Some Spine

In the never-ending tug of war between those who welcome change and those who believe that wherever they live became a finished work of civic art on the day they bought their house, this is a very good week for the good guys.

The D. C. government has, for once, stood up against a loud minority of residents, this time in the Northwest section of the Palisades, and demolished a decrepit, abandoned Craftsman-style Sears kit house that for too many years had marred the entryway to the neighborhood's premier park. The bulldozing of the Jesse Baltimore House on Sherier Place NW over Thanksgiving weekend comes after years of battle between city authorities and an extremely dedicated and passionate group of preservationists who believed against all evidence that someone would eventually come along, buy the house, restore it to its original condition and live in it.

Here, finally, was a case in which the District's Historic Preservation office met an old building it did not deem historic. By a 6-3 vote in September, the Historic Preservation Review Board decided that the Baltimore House was not worthy of landmark designation. "It wasn't unique," board chairman Tersh Boasberg said. That freed the way to demolish a house that for years has prevented the National Park Service from creating a safe, functional and inviting entrance and parking area for a park that serves thousands of local kids in baseball, soccer and basketball leagues, as well as offering a playground and rec center.

The defenders of the building, led by the indefatigable Mary Rowse, argued that there was something quite special about the Baltimore House, which was an example of Sears' top-of-the-line Fullerton model of houses that you could build from a kit.

But there are still about 300 Sears kit houses standing in the District, and many are in splendid shape. American University Park, for example, is dotted with Sears houses, some of them in the original, remarkably compact version, and many others expanded in all manner of ways.

Many Palisades residents were eager to see the Baltimore House go, largely because it was a longstanding eyesore, but also because this frees the way for the old and insufficient recreation center behind the house to be expanded or rebuilt--a far higher use of the property than letting an old, unimportant house stand and rot.

The city's preservation rules and bureaucracy remain too heavily skewed toward those who would use historic designations as a weapon against building the city's population back up toward where it was half a century ago. But it's heartening to see a case in which the preservation authorities did not cave to the demands of those who overreach in their claims of historic importance, thereby diminishing the credibility that preservationists so desperately need to save those structures that truly do tell us who we are and what we have achieved.

If all the energy wasted on trying to save a house such as the one in the Palisades could be harnessed and applied toward a campaign to stop the federal government from taking over the grand and elegant St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast Washington and turning it into a high-security zone for the Homeland Security Department, the real, hard work of preservation might get a dearly needed boost.

By Marc Fisher |  November 28, 2007; 7:08 AM ET
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Comments

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Right on, Marc. I can't believe it, but you finally got an issue right. As they say, a broken clock is right twice a day.

Posted by: WaPo's Next Metro Columnist/Blogger | November 28, 2007 9:31 AM

Not what they did - I completely agree. What is sad is that this passes for having the courage to stand up to vocal minorities who are clearly in the wrong.

Posted by: This is sad | November 28, 2007 9:35 AM

Sounds like the neighbors, didn't want a rec center with ballgames going in there.

If it was sufficiently historic then you'd think they'd have established a corporation, bought and renovated it. If nobody would buy it then it's a tyranny of the loud minority to block other uses.

I live down-county in MoCo, and recreational facilities are in short supply, so I can sympathize with the city/youth orgs wanting the space.

Posted by: RoseG | November 28, 2007 10:42 AM

Great! Maybe now they can finally decide that eyesore on Wisconsin Ave (the old Murphy's building) is not historic, it's merely old and ugly, and finally put it to good use. Historic preservation is great, but only when tempered by common sense. Otherwise, we should all move back to mud huts since everything since then is not historic.

Posted by: good news | November 28, 2007 10:45 AM

Don't blame the neighbors for the delay! The biggest advocates for keeping the wreck intact lived in places like Chevy Chase, not the Palisades.

Posted by: drmommy | November 28, 2007 11:38 AM

The fact that the advocates for saving it weren't able to come up with the money or a buyer for it speaks volumes about how much they really cared. They failed to put their money where their mouth is.

Posted by: ah | November 28, 2007 11:57 AM

If this house was so important, why didn't these people come up with the money themselves to buy it and restore it? Ahhh, they wanted someone else (i.e., the taxpayers) to do it. That tells you alot about the true value of the house, doesn't it? Frankly, not every old or even notable building is worth saving. Heck, even some of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses have been demolished. Why? Because not all of them were all that interesting or very good examples of his work.

The people involved in a movement, whatever the cause, tend to adopt an absolutist mentality the longer the movement goes on. So it was with preservation. It went from big-picture, obvious cases, such as saving Grand Central Terminal, Union Station, and other buildings with important histories and architectures, to the kind of stupidity we saw with this case. And why the absolutist busybodies scurry around, worrying about the insignificant, the truly important cases that the movement was started for in the first place go unaddressed.

Posted by: Claudius | November 28, 2007 12:14 PM

If this house was so important, why didn't these people come up with the money themselves to buy it and restore it? Ahhh, they wanted someone else (i.e., the taxpayers) to do it. That tells you alot about the true value of the house, doesn't it? Frankly, not every old or even notable building is worth saving. Heck, even some of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses have been demolished. Why? Because not all of them were all that interesting or very good examples of his work.

The people involved in a movement, whatever the cause, tend to adopt an absolutist mentality the longer the movement goes on. So it was with preservation. It went from big-picture, obvious cases, such as saving Grand Central Terminal, Union Station, and other buildings with important histories and architectures, to the kind of stupidity we saw with this case. And why the absolutist busybodies scurry around, worrying about the insignificant, the truly important cases that the movement was started for in the first place go unaddressed.

Posted by: Claudius | November 28, 2007 12:14 PM

I would hate it if you ever let facts interfere with your splendid screeds. The JB house never stood in the way of "expanding or rebuilding" the Rec Center. The rationale for demolishing it was to provide a grander entranceway to the Center's parking lot. Many of demolition's heartiest supporters were opposed so much as a new tot lot on the house site because the kids would have made noise.

check out http://www.victoriansecrets.net/jbhouse.html for some correct info on the house's history.

Posted by: peter | November 28, 2007 12:16 PM

Also, the reason that the house was not purchased restored was that the National Parks Service (owner) and DC Government (administrator) refused to sell it. They were approached many times over the years and in fact had a file of letters from people who had wanted to purchase it. People expressed interest in buying the deteriorated house even after being told that it would have to be moved. I do not understand why the city implies that no one was interested.

Posted by: peter | November 28, 2007 12:23 PM

I can hardly wait until my neighbors realize this was only phase one. The next struggle will be when the city reveals what the "green space" that is created by the removal of the house will be. It will be a funny color of green: grayish black with yellow stripes. A parking lot.

Posted by: Sherier Place | November 28, 2007 12:23 PM

I am a resident of NW DC and had no idea about this. First, I am glad Mary Cheh was in favor of the demolition. Second, I can't help but think 'preservationists' might have had the hidden agenda of keeping visitation of the park/rec center to a minimum. The house may have limited visibility of the rec center; it is not a facility I've ever seen. If not a hidden agenda, then I guess they just have way too much time on their hands. I'm sure they'll be off to stop progress somewhere else soon.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | November 28, 2007 12:49 PM

I think you're all missing the point. The city owns this property and has for some time. They allowed the building to deteriorate and made it an eyesore. They set the timetables not the preservationists. The city's 30-day window to sell the structure for salvage or reconstruction elsewhere was unrealistic. Now the house sits in a broken mess in an area landfill. There was interest to salvage the house for parts, but the sneaky holiday demolition took care of that. No. The city needs to take responsibility for this. And where was the Green Party candidate on this issue (CM Cheh)? She was all for the landfill. Let's get real. Given more that 30 days to find a salvage operator was the right call.

Posted by: Rynecki | November 28, 2007 12:52 PM

Excellent. The city should build a homeless shelter or a day laborer site with the space.

Posted by: Master of the Universe | November 28, 2007 1:01 PM

Master of the Universe has a GREAT idea:

"The city should build a homeless shelter or a day laborer site with the space."

The new building should be named The Jullio Jouse.

Posted by: Mister Methane | November 28, 2007 2:09 PM

When I read the headline I thought this was going to be about closing schools. But not, this is just "some spine" not a lot of spine. I guess if schools ever do get closed the headline will be "District shows amount of spine previously believed impossible."

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2007 3:03 PM

Also, to be clear, (since Mr. Fisher isn't), at the 3 city meetings most preservationists wanted 1) the house to be sold to a restorer and returned to the tax rolls and 2) the $500K purchase price to be earmarked for improving Palisades Rec Center. Many pro-demolitionists 1)said that the purchase proceeds were not needed because the city had already allocated a lot of money to improving the park, 2)did not want the house site used for recreation because it would be noisy, and 3)did not want any park enhancements such as a bigger sign or more more playing fields that might bring "traffic" (outsiders).

Posted by: peter | November 28, 2007 3:12 PM

"Excellent. The city should build a homeless shelter or a day laborer site with the space."

A great idea. I live in a Capitol Hill southeast residential neighborhood which will soon find out that it will be housing over 300 homeless people on one site. We already house slightly more than 100 homeless people at that site. I think we should share our wealth with the Palisades neighborhood. We even have nine trailers the city can slip in overnight for use in the now vacant lot.
Come on Ms Cheh, you did your work and now its time to step up to the plate and help our homeless residents.

Posted by: Share the Wealth | November 28, 2007 4:30 PM

The more I read your blog, the more I realize how terrible a mistake the Post has made in giving you a bully pulpit. You spout things from your mouth that are backed by no research, no knowledge, or anything beyond the opinions of a self-congratulatory ignoramus. Educate yourself about this house and its importance to our city and perhaps you'll come to understand why your opinion really is nothing more than that of an uneducated clout looking for unwarrented and unearned attention.

Posted by: Lance | November 28, 2007 6:45 PM

The more I read your blog, the more I realize how terrible a mistake the Post has made in giving you a bully pulpit. You spout things from your mouth that are backed by no research, no knowledge, or anything beyond the opinions of a self-congratulatory ignoramus. Educate yourself about this house and its importance to our city and perhaps you'll come to understand why your opinion in this case (as in most matters you comment on) really is nothing more than that of an uneducated clout looking for unwarranted and unearned attention. It's pretty clear to most of us that you like to take contradictory positions just to be noticed? Get a real job.

Posted by: Lance | November 28, 2007 6:48 PM

Btw, why didn't you happen to mention in your blog that the National Park Service (who owns the house and the land it stood on) specially told the District to NOT demolish the house as it was considering designating it a national historic landmark ... and that the District's demolition was completely illegal. (
And since when does committing an illegal act equate with "showing spine"?)

IMHO, this was a big mistake on the part of the District. As evidenced by the events occuring following the "West End Deal", the District's citizen's will no longer put up with government figures not following the law and regs. I would bet on someone being held accountable for this illegal demolition.

Posted by: Lance | November 28, 2007 6:53 PM

Since the price was "free" and only a requirement to move it created a cost, why did no one come forward even to propose something within 30 days? It had dragged on long enough yet still no one came forward and said "I'll move it". Or even said "give me 30 more days for a plan". No one. Not a single person. So I don't buy that the district prevented it from happening.

Posted by: ah | November 28, 2007 7:35 PM

There were offers to both buy the house, move the house and deconsruct the house. DCRA/DPR etc ignored them and did the one thing that created the most destructive result.

I guess my neighbors really showed their mettle with this one.

Posted by: Palisades reader | November 28, 2007 8:41 PM

A spine without a brain is a dangerous thing.

Posted by: PMOP | November 28, 2007 9:12 PM

"If all the energy wasted on trying to save a house such as the one in the Palisades could be harnessed and applied toward a campaign to stop the federal government from taking over the grand and elegant St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast Washington and turning it into a high-security zone for the Homeland Security Department, the real, hard work of preservation might get a dearly needed boost."

Say it loud, say it proud!

Posted by: Mark | November 28, 2007 9:54 PM

"In the never-ending tug of war between those who welcome change and those who believe that wherever they live became a finished work of civic art on the day they bought their house," ...this is not a very good week for good journalism.

This article is just another sucker-punch in Marc Fisher's ongoing personal fight against Historic Preservation. The target of his objections has usually been the Historic Preservation Review Board, but the District's preservation ordinances (and the general philosophy that underlies community protection) are his real opponents. The function of the Review Board has NEVER been to keep the District in immutable stasis, as he continues to falsely report. It serves to enforce laws that allow (and frequently encourage) development and change in a well-planned directed strategy, one that is compatible with other community interests and goals. I have no doubt that Mr. Fisher will keep reporting on the occasional denied request as if the welfare of the entire city hangs in jeopardy, and never mention the hundreds of approved additions, alterations, and even demolitions issued each year. Maintaining the city's rich built environment, one of the many qualities that make DC successful, is an essential service being performed by the HPRV that Marc Fisher refuses to acknowledge.

Posted by: Sean | November 29, 2007 11:11 AM

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