by Andrew K. Stevenson and Julia Kampelman Stevenson
In her opinion piece “In DC, historic landmarks are a vital preservation tool” (FHC 3/21/17), Jane Solomon, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance, starts with developing the premise that the current DC Historic Preservation law, as it applies to private homes, is a justifiable and settled state of affairs.
This current discussion, and others that are occurring in communities elsewhere in the country, plus the ongoing lawsuit (see Note 1 below) associated with the FHNA’s move (over the vehement objections of the owner) to designate 3020 Albemarle Street a historic landmark might indicate otherwise (see Note 2 below). In fact like any other law, in addition to judicial recourse there is also a legislative process for amending it if there is political support to do so.
The American democratic experiment is fairly unique in its intense focus on the rights of the individual, trusting in their inherent ability and competence to make decisions about how to live their own lives and emphasizing their right to own private property. However, in Solomon’s opinion piece there is disquieting inference that generally speaking we shouldn’t have the confidence or trust in either the judgment or the competence of our neighbors to take care of and make valid, informed decisions about their own homes and property, including and perhaps especially regarding the aesthetics of the house that they choose to live in.
Instead her implication is that it is better for the neighborhood as a whole if individual homeowners are monitored by a governmental agency and neighborhood groups and individuals who have assigned themselves the task without consulting the whole neighborhood, but who feel nonetheless that they are better suited to determine the architectural or historical ‘merit’ of a particular house.
We would hope that most would agree that no one individual or civic association should be permitted to use the DC Historic Preservation regulations to in effect impose their own personal aesthetic vision on Forest Hills and thereby determine what built environment is “best for Forest Hills.” Aesthetic and historical merit are to a significant extent in the eye, the education and the beliefs of the beholder. The housing stock in Forest Hills is enormously varied and thus reflects a broad aesthetic range. Who are any of us to say that we know what is best for our neighbors and that our own taste should prevail?
It is somewhat ironic that Solomon would mention the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright in arguing in favor of the need for residential historic preservation regulation. Mr. Wright was arguably the most fiercely individualistic architect ever to practice in America; and our guess is he would have had no patience with historic preservation design review of the houses that he designed for his clients, either by governmental agencies or by a neighborhood group. It is quite possible that a good many of his designs could have been rejected or aesthetically modified if they had been forced to run the gauntlet of such a process, and if Wright’s designs had been altered, then neither his clients nor succeeding generations would have even had the chance to experience his buildings in the form he had originally intended. Would that have been a desirable outcome?
Homeowners should and can be trusted to make informed decisions about their own property. Indeed Wright’s Fallingwater (one of the houses that most people would agree actually does deserve historic landmark designation) is a good example of this: Of his own free will its owner entrusted the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.
Similarly, all DC residential landmark designation applications should be approved and signed by the owner of the property that is the subject of the application. While this is the case in other jurisdictions, alas, as we have seen, this is not the case now in DC. Everyone in the neighborhood is better served if we let each other do what we want to with our own homes and property; thereby allowing all homeowners to have a say in what is aesthetically best for Forest Hills. That way we will all have the same rights and privileges that we assume the officers of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance have had, and hopefully will have, whenever they want to alter, add to or sell their own homes without any additional interference from their neighbors or a historic preservation design review board. This seems only fair.
Note 1: For information on the lawsuit over the historic designation of 3020 Albemarle Street, see dccourts.gov, case numbers 2016 CA 006397 B and 2016 CA 004493 B.
Note 2: The webcast of the Historic Preservation Review Board hearing on the historic designation of 3020 Albemarle is available in HPRB’s video archives. Search by date: July 23, 2015. It’s the third Designation Hearing on the pop-up timeline, Case No. 15-14. You must have Flash Player installed on your computer or device to play it.
Forest Hills Connection is a project of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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