Further discussion on 6th & K

Earlier in the week we commented on MRP’s rendering for 6th and K St NW and how it would lead to demolition of 3 seemingly well preserved Victorian row houses.

Most readers chimed in that the rowhouses should ideally be saved. One did offer this:

OK folks – to play devil’s advocate here, not EVERY historic building is worth saving or should be saved. The idea of historic preservation is to save representative examples of architecture styles from different periods for posterity so we can have an idea of what buildings once looked like. The idea is not to save EVERY building. These buildings, while nice, are represented in many other places in the city, and therefore they don’t have historic preservation status. Our neigbhorhood is not where historians are going to go for an architectural history lesson. That said, I’m glad there are SOME preserved buildings in the Triangle, and I’m much more interested in preserving the historic garages and stables than the victorian houses. Unfortunately, most of those were destroyed in the aftermath of the race riots.

What’s reader reaction to this comment? I appreciate the commenter’s willingness to play the devil’s advocate here. The part I would readily disagree with is the blanket rule that if there are other similar buildings elsewhere in the city then the buildings in your neighborhood do not need to be saved. That’s a useful test when debating whether a brutalist eyesore needs to be preserved. The brutalist buildings aren’t very old and almost everyone bleeds from the eyes when staring directly at them. On the flipside Victorians row houses are a celebrated style of architecture still popular among current residents after a hundred years. Preserving enclaves of them, such as the 500 block of I Street NW (just south of the Triangle), is worthwhile. It tells a story that “hey, downtown used to be like this” and it creates a more diverse urban fabric downtown.

I’m not a fan of blanket criteria when it comes to preservation but I understand why the criteria are structured that way. It’s an attempt to be objective rather than subjective and therefore more legally defensible. However, when it comes to the court of public opinion I think you can reject that blanket criteria without it meaning you want to “save EVERY building“.

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  1. 1

    DG-rad says

    thanks for posting this. i am actually drafting a similar post for my own blog on this topic, because i think the historic preservation community has lost sight of the purpose.

    there is a difference between archaeology and the reasons for saving old buildings. I want to start the old buildings preservation movement.

    not based on its history or its architectural merit, but on the plain and simple fact that people Like To Look At Old Buildings and they were built with better materials and to a more human scale than most of what is built today.

    the historic preservation movement was started because of the demolition of buildings like Penn Station in NYC. The building was grand, beautiful, and a great presence on the street. Then again it borrowed architectural styles from a lot of different countries and eras, and its architect had built other buildings like it elsewhere. Why should it have been saved? Because historical things happened there? No, because it looked good and it had character and it was nice.

    People love Georgetown and Capitol Hill. Why? Because of the great landscape of old buildings. Is every house “historic?” Certainly not. But they look cool, some are small, some are large, some are slanted.

    Can we just appreciate buildings for them being old? Is that okay? YES! Why? Because that is why historic preservation started. Most people aren’t simply interested in a world that is a museum of “different architectural styles from different periods”. That isn’t the point. And that’s why I don’t understand some of the desire to save Brutalism which generally kills the street.

    People like cool-looking places where they feel comfortable and are pleasant to walk around in.

    what I will say in my own post goes something like this: It’s the beauty and ambiance of the fabric that matters. Sure, places change. I support that. But can we remember that historic preservation for most people is not about the historic-ness of a place, but of the look, feel, and character of the place and its relation the places and buildings surrounding it.

  2. 2

    fourthandeye says

    @DG-Rad: thanks for the comment. Architecture does influence the way people feel about a place. I believe you are on point about why people like Georgetown and Capitol Hill. When I originally wrote this posting it was much longer and covered that angle. I decided to trim it down before publishing it figuring I'm better off breaking the discussion down into multiple postings.

    What I had wrote was that Penn Quarter is more interesting than the West End (around Farrugut metro) for numerous reasons – chief among them the diversity of building stock (old & new) and the arts overlay.

    The Mount Vernon Triangle does not have enough remaining old building stock to replicate what Penn Quarter has done. But that shouldn't mean we have to punt on architecture completely and settle for 12 story boxes that are glass for offices and orange or gray brick for residences.

    I think the dilemma here is that good architecture creates a positive externality. Those that create that externality are never fully compensated for what the benefit produced. In today's age of bottom lines and value engineering creating positive externalities isn't something the market often organically produces. When a developer does integrate some of these features it's usually because zoning or HRPB persuaded them to or their project is part of a large masterplan such that the adjacent properties that benefit from their externality are also owned by them.

    Developers would prefer to situate themselves next to a positive externality and free ride on the benefit. This isn't entirely negative. It's better to have a Hampton Inn than a surface parking lot. But at some point if all the projects that aren't from the RFP's (CityVista, 5th&Eye) only erect boring orange buildings the area won't fully realize it's potential.