Mount Pleasant was designated an official "historic district" in 1987, after
a long and contentious neighborhood battle. Advocates argued that something had to be
done to stop "ugly" modern development in this rapidly up-scaling neighborhood.
Opponents protested that this would make our increasingly expensive neighborhood
still more expensive, and unaffordable, thus adding to the pressures turning our
diverse neighborhood into a plain-vanilla copy of Ward Three neighborhoods.
Historic Preservation: problems with the District's system
Well, the preservationists won. So today, 21 years on, is historic district
designation beneficial to Mount Pleasant?
I see serious problems in the
manner in which historic regulations are imposed in our neighborhood. What
people wanted was a way to control development. Okay, but along
with the controls on developers come stringent controls on
alterations by homeowners to their own homes.
You cannot do whatever you want to your own house. Yes, it's
your property, but anything you do that affects its external appearance,
and even things that you might want to do in the back, out of sight, will
run afoul of the historic preservation police.
|Here's an example of nice (in my opinion) work
that was rejected by the regulators. This is a front walk to a house on
18th Street with a basement entrance. The developer built a very nice curved
brick and cut-stone edging to the walkway.
Why would anyone complain about this very
nice-looking little wall? Built of brick and stone, it's certainly not
"modern". What would anyone reasonably complain about? It's plain that I don't
agree with this rigid imposition of uniformity on our neighborhood. Mount
Pleasant is proud of its diversity, and even the petition for historic district
designation notes the "medley of diverse building types, styles, forms, massing,
and details" that characterizes our neighborhood. The Historic Preservation
Office now demands that that "medley" of diversity be frozen rigidly in time,
with no resident allowed to deviate from an ideal of peas-in-a-pod uniformity.
Well, complain they did. The Historic Preservation Office inspector, a
fanatic for "repeated patterns" in this row-house district, asserted that this
residence had to match its neighbors, which did not have such elegant stone- and
brickwork edgings. The developer was forced to amputate that nice
cut-stone top, then cover over the brickwork with bare concrete, so that his
front walk would not be very different from his neighbors' front walks.
The inspector objected also to those nice paving stones, but
reluctantly allowed them to stay. Had this developer sought a permit in advance
of the work, as he was supposed to do, he would have been told that paving
stones are not allowed, either. Front walks are supposed to be plain, bare
concrete, that being the utilitarian style of Mount Pleasant before 1950.
In short, you're not allowed to do anything to
your house that makes it look any different from anyone else's in the row.
"Compatible with the character of the historic district" is taken by the
Historic Preservation Office to mean that row houses are supposed to look all
alike. Don't even think of "improving" your house, or even the front walk
leading into your house.
If someone wants to do something radical to his house, well, fine, let's object
to anything that is ugly or, in the word that governs Massachusetts historic
preservation law, "incongruous". But modest improvements by homeowners, enhancing the appearance
or functionality of their residences, ought to be allowed, barring only
radical, "incongruous" alterations.
This is where historic preservation has gone
Even some residents who promoted historic district designation in 1986 here will now
say that it has gone too far. The goal was the prevention of incongruous
developments and alterations. Nobody wanted to see Mount Pleasant turned
into a time capsule, a museum piece where residents cannot change a thing
on their homes, but are forced to keep everything just as it was before
In March, 2007, I wrote up a short newsletter
summarizing my concerns about historic preservation in Mount Pleasant.
More: a battle over windows erupted
when a young couple, newly arrived to the neighborhood, replaced their leaky old
windows with well-insulated thermopane. The neighbors are fine with that, as is
the ANC, but not our band of preservationists.
In 2008 the historical preservationists of the Kalorama Citizens' Association (KCA)
(another band of upper-class residents organized to impose their views on
the rest of their neighborhood) set about making Lanier Heights, the northern
portions of Adams Morgan, from Columbia Road to Harvard Street, a historic district. But
residents of Lanier Heights got wind of the scheme and warned their neighbors of what
was coming. I helped, with a report on the Mount Pleasant experience
with being a designated historic district.
On September 15 the Adams Morgan ANC
organized a meeting of residents to discuss this project. Some 70 or 80 people
showed up, the great majority of them vehemently opposed to historic district
designation. Residents of the western portion of Adams Morgan, lately designated
the Washington Heights historic district, related their unhappy experiences
since its designation. Advocates protested that historic preservation regulation
was really gentle and easy to deal with, but the actual experience of residents
of historic districts, including my report, refuted that assertion.
Councilmember Jim Graham distributed a letter by him advising the Historic
Preservation Review Board to refrain from making Lanier Heights a historic
district. That ought to put an end to that.
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This page updated October 17, 2008