HPRB Votes to Expand Capitol Hill Historic District Northward

HPRB Votes to Expand Capitol Hill Historic District Northward

by Larry Janezich

According to Mark Eckenwiler, Chair of ANC6C’s Planning, Zoning, and Environment Committee, last Thursday, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) voted unanimously to expand the Capitol Hill Historic District to the north.  The expansion includes a portion of a Capitol Hill community known in the late 19th Century as “Swampoodle” – which later became the home of Union Station and NoMa. The newly designated part of the Historic District lies within Eckenwiler’s single member district (SMD).

According to Wikipedia, the area received its name from a description in a newspaper report about the 1857 ground-breaking for St. Aloysius Church.  The reporter covering the event referred to the swampy character of the land and the puddles left when Tiber Creek overflowed.  An Irish community developed in the area in the late 1800s comprised of those fleeing the Irish potato famine.

The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has been actively supporting this expansion as part of its “Beyond the Boundaries” initiative.  (For a previous post on this initiative, see CHC posting here:  http://bit.ly/1JoEJHh)   In March of this year, CHRS joined ANC6C and Councilmember Allen in petitioning HPRB in support of the Swampoodle addition to the Capitol Hill Historic District.  CHRS has provided a map of the expansion, see here:  http://bit.ly/1HJF6b2


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24 responses to “HPRB Votes to Expand Capitol Hill Historic District Northward

  1. Corey H.

    This post went from straight fact reporting on the HD expansion (supported by the ANC and presumably the residents) to alluding to CHRS’s tactics in expanding/creating historic districts to the east.

    I’d like like to remind CHRS that they lost the debate over Barney Circle in 2010 (though somehow the designation remains on the long term HPRB calendar). And then they were roundly shot down at their community meeting on Hill East expansion last November.

    But thanks to their tax-exempt contributions funneled to EHT Traceries, my neighbors and I have the ability to apply for historic district status any time we want. Thanks for that. But we don’t want it. We have rejected it in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

    Until our legislators create the ability to form conservation districts (“historic districts lite”) or implement form-based zoning, CHRS is just wasting their time and money with their power grab disguised as “Beyond the Boundaries”

  2. Dcfyi

    The article is on point. I don’t see this article as a propaganda piece in support of CHRS.

  3. Michael

    The term “historic” seems to be hyperbolic in this case, as the neighborhood’s claim to historic status seems to be that the land was once a bit swampy.

    Truth in advertising laws should require the HPRB to rename itself the “Anti Pop-up and Status Quo Preservation Board.” That’s what is really being accomplished by this latest expansion. There is no history to preserve.

    • Tom

      Michael, go take look at the homes in the new historic district addition on either side of G St., NE, on either side of 3rd St., NE, and on the west side of 4th St., NE, or research them yourself. Almost all are of similar age and construction to the homes just south of the new area, in the current Capitol Hill HD.

      When you say, “There is no history to preserve,” your statement is not factual, it seems to be made up only to serve the purpose of your screed against historic preservation and the HPRB. Only people who don’t know the area in question will be fooled.

      • Michael

        I’m actually a former home owner in that area. I’m happy to have sold before HPRB rules took effect.

      • Rashid Johnson

        It’s made up history. Nothing historic happened in those houses and their style is found all over the city. It’s silly that people have to beg a fake arm of government to fix their porch or paint their house.

      • Craig D'Ooge

        “It’s made up history.” I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve live and worked on the Hill for 40 years. The Restoration Society and their official spawn the HPO, likes to pretend it is all about history, but really what it is about is their own idealized, artificially constructed history dominated by specific visual tropes and selective markers that appeal to that most dangerous of human emotions, “nostalgia for what never was.” It’s all a very “privileged” 18th century notion, dominated by the visual, of what civilization should look like. Grecian urns are ok in front yards, but Grecian grills are an affront to sense and sensibility. People on these boards actually talk about “restoring L’Enfant’s vision,” and “making the neighborhood all look the same” (note the emphasis on the visual) as if L’Enfant’s plan was ever fully realized to begin with and it was somehow taken away by evil forces that can now be vanquished one hearing at a time. It’s stage sets they want to see constructed, leading to things like ridiculous hybrid modernist/ historical condo projects with giant buildings okayed as long as they have a few hypertrophic features of a single family row house slapped on the facade, as if this makes these bloated hives “blend in” with the neighborhood. (See projects on NW corners of 11th/Penn. SE or 6th and Maryland NE.) Or 18th century brick sidewalks laid down in late 19th century/early 20th neighborhoods to look “historic.” There is even this wonderfully revisionist notion of the “period of significance,” where only certain periods of history somehow “count.” To whom and for what, for God’s sake? All this does is give a few chosen esthetes the opportunity to adjust their bow ties and snoods as they trundle out terms like “massing” and “fenestration” (or contort language into professionalized jargon like how to “park” an area of land based on antique laws) in front of the bewildered homeowners and harried contractors that they badger with generalized, vague comments to “try again” while peering over the tops of their half rim glasses. Then, they advise us all to hire people like themselves to “oversee” and “manage” simple home improvement projects because the process is so byzantine that only someone with a graduate degree even speaks the language of their discourses. It’s a shake down and the History Factory will always continue to expand in area and complexity just enough to keep the “authorizers” on their tiny thrones. At bottom, that’s what it is all really about. We may not have “Home Rule,” but we sure as hell can dictate how pointy your finials can be. Some people find all this oversight and review of things like how high your rose bush can be a comfort so will never do the “wrong” thing and don’t have to think for themselves. Obviously, I don’t. If I wanted to live in a history theme park, I would have moved to Willamsburg years ago.

  4. Craig D'Ooge

    Any background on exactly why this particular little area, and why this ANC commissioner? Of course, “mission creep” is inevitable with bureaucracies, but there has got to be more to this story than has been reported so far…”Swampoodle” hardly covers it, and does anything distinguish these few blocks from others on Capitol Hill not currently part of the CHHD?

    • Tom

      My understanding is that there was considerably community support for historic preservation protection for this area. Without such support, the designation wouldn’t have happened.

      Several historic homes without protection afforded by historic district status were lost to new construction on H street several years ago, so the minds of remaining homeowners were apparently concentrated. They apparently wanted protection that their own homes would not all of a sudden be next to a 7 story development, with accompanying loss of light, increase in noise, etc. Seems like they want to keep their peace and quiet as well as their historic architecture and homes.

      • anon

        plus the new pop up on 600 block of 2nd NE. The nearby F St. pop up is tasteful and not overly conspicuous, but 2nd St. one looks like an Excursion squeezed into a compact parking spot

      • Craig D'Ooge

        There are lots of ways to keep their peace and quiet and their architecture…people should try to wade through the hundreds of pages of all the regulations, out-dated information, and plain contradictory guidance on the city’s Historic Preservation site before deciding if the benefits of such a dubious distinction outweigh the cost. (The installation of historically “inappropriate” (according to the HPO) brick sidewalks on Capitol Hill is a perfect example of the mixed messaging.) Personally, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs, except perhaps for the bustle and ruff crowd. If I could, I would gladly remove the plaque from my house, which I no longer view as a distinction, but as a target for neighborhood busy-bodies, snoops, and zealots, as they attempt to be more authoritarian than the city itself. This was proven to me in a recent case. As one neighbor recently told me, if the ANCs had any authority (they can only advise), DC would become a police state. But each to their own, and some people, I suppose, want to live in the19th century architectural petting zoo that Capitol Hill is becoming. But they should inform themselves about what this really means in practice. The notion that historic area designation automatically means increased property values and prestige is problematic, at best. Reston or Williamsburg beckon for people who need false comfort and security of “planned” communities. Tom, you have a naive belief in the process if you think success is indicative of support. Is any part of the new annexation even on H St.? I can’t tell from the map.

      • Tom

        Craig, I’m not naive about the benefits of having an historic district, nor about having my own home in the HD. I’m very happy about the HD. I’m very happy that a large swath of mostly late 19th C architecture is being preserved as a whole, and not pock marked with pop ups and new buildings that don’t fit the architecture of the Hill. It may be a petting zoo to you, but to me Capitol Hill architecture is excellent the way it is. I do think the benefits outweigh the costs. I do know what it means in practice to be in a HD, I’ve been in one for a few decades.

        The people in the new addition aren’t naive, either, they knew what they were doing and they are happy about it, they testified in favor of the addition and otherwise expressed their support.

  5. Craig D'Ooge

    Ok, you enjoy pretending you live in the late 19th century. But only a very rarefied and artificial version of that which doesn’t include the bars, boarding houses, and “sporting houses” of the period, but does have to have granite counter tops and full glass shower doors. So do it. Just don’t force the rest of us to adopt your esthetic preferences to maintain your “view”.

    • Tim B.

      And if you enjoy pretending that what has replaced the aesthetic values of that era is in any way superior, we have a theme park for you just across the tracks in NOMA, or just across the river in Arlington. I agree that a HD is a sub-optimal outcome, relative to a form-based zoning code or conservation district. But left with only the options of continuing to allow developers to siphon the maximum value from the surrounding community by constructing buildings and additions that are at best indifferent to their surroundings, or putting up with the many, many hassles of a HD, I’ll take a HD every time.

      • Craig D'Ooge

        You present a false dichotomy. There are more than two choices, and criticizing one does not absolve the other.

  6. Valerie

    As a long-time resident in the HD of Capitol Hill, I do not know how I feel about this. As long as this change accurately represents the wishes of community members, it is for the good, so people can rest assured in their own homes that they will not have a relatively huge structure shadowing them on their otherwise, quiet, residential block (i.e., the 700 block of 3rd NE). OTOH, I think what is counted as “historic” is not always agreed-upon nor even historically defensible (brick sidewalks on Capitol Hill, for example). I have found it remarkable that mere outside appearance–facades, in fact–is so meaningful in historic preservation in DC. I have spent decades here watching as people gutted homes and buildings that were otherwise historically and physically sound just because they felt like it–and they did so perfectly legally, as long as the facades, sometimes 1 brick thick, were preserved. I have also watched as empty lots have been filled in with carbon copies of what *might* have been there back in the day–without any consideration as to what actually WAS there or what actually IS the best in contemporary architecture. I totally get that it’s a knife fight for any historic preservation–but we seem to settle for so much less than we could have, by framing the entire historic preservation conversation in terms of one period of history, and outward appearances at that. We lose the broader view of what makes cities and neighborhoods vibrant and shut out a lot of voices that need to be heard, but lack the money and means to be heard equally.

    • Tom

      Valerie, thank you for your thoughtful reply. You bring up several issues, I’d like to address just one, the issue that historic preservation as it stands in DC protects facades, but owners can totally gut the interior if they so chose.

      I’m not an architect or historian, but here is my sense of why that might be. It is the architecture that people see, that can make an area distinctive to pedestrians and others. Neighborhoods where the great majority of the homes reflect distinctive architectural styles of a particular time, where different streets offer different takes on such architectural themes, where there is visual interest, are the ones worthy of preserving facades.

      But imagine the (legitimate) uproar if people couldn’t do what they wished inside the structure and facade. While 150 year old flooring and beams, and quaint little circular rooms, may be worthy of preservation in the eyes of some, to me it would be a bridge way too far to seek to control what people do on the inside of a structure in an HD.

    • Bill C.

      Oh, come on Valerie.

      You write, “…as people gutted homes and buildings that were otherwise historically and physically sound just because they felt like it” but that is melodramatic, condescending, and insulting.

      They didn’t make those changes “because they felt like it” –they made them because they decided that, after evaluating the cost and impact on their house, that they were better off after making the changes.

      In short, they made a decision that you disagree with (either because they used different criteria, weighed those criteria differently, or both) and that you don’t feel like they were entitled to make. My guess is that they valued historic preservation less than you do and that you feel justified in trying to use the force of law to make other people do what you want them to do in the future.

      In terms of community input, this article from Hill Now was interesting.


      Note the de facto extortion in the last paragraph. Why can’t that money go into a general fund?

      • Craig D'Ooge

        “Historic Preservation Review Board approves expansion of its own authority.” What a surprise. This is like reading that the American Brick Council recommends bricks. Of course Eikenwiler wants to expand his territory , and he knows how to manage the process to get it. Not that the ANCs even have to “reflect community opinion” anymore…no the law was changed to read they only have to “consider it.” And who decides if they have “considered” something? Why they do, of course. And then the advise the city without even providing the city a record of the opposition to their vote. ANC6C summarizes their own version of what transpires at their meetings, and point to the Hill Rag coverage as “openness” while purchasing thousands of dollars of advertising from them, and meeting in the Heritage Foundation for free while approving each any every zoning variance ever requested by their benefactor. And they see nothing wrong with this, because it suits their purposes. Historic Preservation on the Hill is a closed shop. The log-rolling from position to position on all the various boards is proof of that. It’s a facade, pun intended. The very idea that sticking flyers into doors inviting people to serve as background props for a done deal at an ANC meeting constitutes is some kind of referendum, or the “voice of the people”, is ludicrous. They don’t serve the people. They serve themselves.

      • Tom

        Craig, it isn’t accurate that the HPRB serves only themselves.

        If there were not a demand for preserving historic structures, people in Swampoodle would not have just signed petitions for, and testified in favor of, inclusion of their neighborhood in the Capitol Hill HD. Obviously, you don’t like HDs, but you should grasp the idea that many people do like the idea of preserving distinctive neighborhood architecture.

      • Craig D'Ooge

        Oh, I like the “idea” of it too…I just hate the way this idea has been executed. “distinctive” is not what they are about preserving, only a very narrow, academic form of “distinctive” and one man’s “distinctive” architecture is another’s monstrosity, depending on time, social position, and just plain view of what is pretty and what’s not. Let’s leave government out of “pretty.”

      • valerie

        Well, I have no doubt that some people have gutted houses because there was nothing worth preserving.

        But what of those who gut houses solely because it makes them money? What they leave behind is something that in no way resembles what was there before–but will fetch a nice price on the real estate market now. Is that what we want as a society in terms of preservation: something that preserves an outward appearance but may as well be a concrete or steel structure holding it up?

        I have a stack of materials in my house that I have kept since the real estate crash in 2008–offers from perfect strangers to buy my house for cash. Why is that? It’s not because my house is worth anything in terms of its original floors, windows, doors, transoms, plaster, etc. I have no doubt whatsoever that no matter when I sell my house, in whatever condition I sell it, the people buying it will have lots of cash and will get rid of anything and everything inside it because there is, simply put, no monetary value in the original historic details of my house.

        Saying this does not mean that I “disagree” with changes that people make to their houses in or out. Rather, to me, this is about public policy and what we decide is worth historic preservation.

        IMO, historic preservation is devalued when it becomes merely a matter of facade preservation, adhering to a look of a certain time only. I fail to see how that is any different from any development that has strict standards for appearances. Or Disneyland, for that matter–because appearances there matter a lot and what is behind the facades doesn’t.

        And I think this does a tremendous disservice to contemporary designs as well.

  7. Craig D'Ooge

    Couldn’t agree more…”And we are here as on a darkling plain/
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.”