by Elizabeth Wiener
Current Newspapers staff writer
(Republished with permission from the June 10th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.)
The term “teardown” typically evokes a cramped old house, possibly in bad shape and sitting on a lot where a builder could put up a bigger house and rake in profits.
Now proposals to raze three large and architecturally distinctive homes are sending tremors through three Northwest neighborhoods, where some residents say the targeted houses are not “teardowns” but neighborhood treasures.
The three are very different houses facing different development proposals, but all in pricey neighborhoods which share one common attribute: They are not historic districts, where such contributing structures would be automatically protected from demolition. So neighborhood groups are hastily seeking historic landmark status for at least two of the houses – a dicey proposition for the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, which has only 90 days to make a decision once a raze application is submitted.
Two of what preservationists call “emergency” landmark nominations – for 3400 Massachusetts Ave. and 3020 Albemarle St. – will go before the board July 23. Meanwhile, the demolition and possible sale of those homes are in limbo. The third raze in question is at 4304 Forest Lane in Wesley Heights.
What’s behind this fledgling trend? Clearly one factor is a soaring housing market that could make it profitable to tear down even a potentially historic mansion.
“This trend is driven by developers,” said Paul DonVito, president of Foxhall Village Historic Society. “Homeowners buy a house they want to live in.”
Neighbors describe other troubling demolitions but say the three houses at issue are particularly striking. But as with most controversies, there’s another side to the story.
At 3020 Albemarle, neighbors were alarmed by a real estate listing suggesting the property just east of Connecticut Avenue could be used to “build your dream house.” The 1924 home it would replace, according to a hurriedly written landmark nomination, is “unlike any other house in Washington.” The building is “an elegantly sophisticated amalgam of Spanish Eclectic, European Minimalism, and American Modernism,” with a tower-like main block topped by red-tile roof and a third-floor solarium offering “a panoramic view of Soapstone Valley.” (Read more about the history of 3020 Albemarle.)
Jane Solomon, vice president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance, said the last owner lived there for decades but died a year or two ago. Her sons put the house on the market.
“I was really surprised to think anyone would regard it as a ‘teardown,’” Solomon wrote. “I understand the house is fabulous inside but it makes a gloomy first impression from the street.”
The D.C. tax office, in its online database, lists the assessed value as $1.4 million. The assessor rated the exterior condition as “good,” the interior and overall condition as “very good.”
But the real estate agent handling the sale, Brad Rozansky, is fuming. Rozansky said he had to take the listing down to await the outcome of the landmark nomination, which he said could drastically lower its value. He said his clients are counting on the sale to fund their retirement.
“It’s so wrong. Would you like us to do that to your house?” he said. “A lot of these houses are obsolete in today’s world.”
At 3400 Massachusetts Ave., neighbors quickly galvanized to fight a raze permit for what they call “an architectural gem” – a sprawling Mission/Spanish Eclectic-style house facing the U.S. Naval Observatory.
They say the house is also notable for two prominent owners: Christian Heurich, heir to the Heurich brewery fortune, and Dr. Marshall Parks, a forerunner in the field of pediatric ophthalmology.
“Yet a developer stands poised to raze the house because he thinks he can build a bigger and more expensive dwelling on the site, possibly several, no matter that nothing new could recapture the charm of the original, nor its beauty… at this unique location,” said Jane Loeffler, an architectural historian and member of the Massachusetts Avenue Heights Citizens Association, which sponsored the landmark nomination.
Neither a representative of the property’s current owner, State Central Bank of Iowa, nor the contract purchaser, Zuckerman Brothers, responded to requests for comment. Neighbors say the developer could build two houses if it wins permission to raze the 1925 structure, which sits on two lots. The 2015 assessment is $4.4 million, and the assessor, again, lists interior condition and overall condition as “very good.”
But a Realtor who has been inside the house described it as “a rabbit warren of rooms and additions” in “deplorable condition,” with asbestos and water damage.
“It doesn’t meet the needs of a modern family. It’s a gut job,” he said. “If it’s landmarked, the sale could go down the drain.” Of the bank owner, he said, “they have the right to sell the house at the best price, or [build to] the limits of zoning.”
And at 4304 Forest Lane, a whimsical “Storybook Tudor” sits at the edge of Wesley Heights Park, looking a bit like it came out of a Disney fairy tale. The architectural style first appeared in the 1920s, and was especially popular in California but rare in Washington, according to architectural historian Sally Berk. A visitor almost expects to see a dwarf or gnome peek out of the diamond-paned windows of the house, which was built in 1931 and purchased by Michael Sicoli this year. The raze application Sicoli submitted May 12 alarmed neighbors.
DonVito said a meeting of neighbors last week drew 45 people, all opposed to demolition: He said the house has been “lovingly restored and is in almost perfect condition.”
Sicoli, the new owner, wrote in an email that his family wants to move from Arlington to the District, nearer to his children’s schools. “We have been looking at properties in NW DC for years and are excited to have found such a great location on Forest Lane,” he wrote. “Initially we were hoping to do a renovation but it became clear that the current condition of the house would not allow for a cost-effective renovation.
Under the District’s preservation law, the city must give 30 days’ notice of raze applications. If a landmark nomination is filed before that time runs out, the raze permit can be held up for a total of 90 days to give the preservation board time to vote.
If landmark protection is granted, a property owner could appeal to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation to still allow demolition, but only if he or she can show “unreasonable economic hardship” or that demolition is “necessary in the public interest.”