The Hill's Decades of Historic Preservation

Norm & Nancy Metzger

I moved from New York City to Capitol Hill in the late sixties, stayed awhile, came back a year later for good.  Why Capitol Hill?  Because I learned from The New York Times that somewhere in Washington -- terra incognita to me -- was a decent delicatessen. That was Mangialardo's which is still here on Capitol Hill (Try the G-Man Special!).  So to Capitol Hill I moved on the obnoxious-New Yorker premise that a neighborhood with a Times-worthy delicatessen couldn't be bad.  I bought a house for $40,000.  Friends gave me odd looks when I told them where I now lived.  I was repeatedly warned about the area, told that Eighth Street was the "dividing line.  That was cutting it close for being on Eighth Street at night was chancy: Lighting was dim, the bars ominous, the occasional stares not at all friendly.

I played touch football where the Madison Library now sits. "Dined" most weekday evenings at the Neptune Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue between 2nd and 3rd, where the blue-plate special was $2.95.  I bought books at the Trover Shop and got heart-stopping donuts at the next block at Sherrill's. All gone.  Sherrill's was given immortality of sorts by a 1989 film, Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open Six to Nine. Opening night was the highlight of the Hill social season that year.  The showing was at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, with spotlights. The ladies from Sherrill's arrived in a limousine and were so moved by the event that they forgot to deploy their usual repertoire of insults.

The notion of "historic preservation" was foreign to me at the time.  But the currents that would make it such a strong force in the city were there.  Capitol Hill had become a "mecca" for mid- and upper-level civil servants, many of whom had come to Washington in response to John Kennedy's New Frontier and to the growth of government shaped by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs -- Medicare, Civil and Voting rights, Medicaid -- and wanted inexpensive but attractive and ample homes for their families.  They "found" Capitol Hill.  They were also determined to protect their homes and indeed their neighborhoods from the devastation threatened by the highway lobby, Congress, and urban planners who wanted to replace mostly two-story townhouses with superblocks of apartments and office buildings. Many fought that good fight, including Dick Wolf, Hazel Kreinheder, Ruth Overbeck, Peter Powers.  They and others added their strong voices, their will, and their money to the battles waged by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, founded in 1955.

Their struggle joined the city-wide effort to preserve and protect, triggered in good part by the "Don't Tear it Down" movement in the 1960s to save the Old Post Office Tower.  Strong voices were heard.  Jane Jacobs cautioned that "citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them."  Others powerfully articulated their distress at the city's losses of historic fabric, including Wolf Von Eckhardt, architectural critic for the Post, Alison Owings of WRC-FM, Terry Morton of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.  More battles and significant wins.  The Franklin School.  The Willard Hotel. The Warner Theater. More.  Still so much lost, set out in James Goode's Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings.

Slowly the historic preservation battles morphed into a political force in the city. The Capitol Hill Historic District was created in 1973, in time joined by over 30 neighborhood historic districts, from Blagden Alley to U Street.  Designation as an historic district was nice, but it lacked enforcement clout.  That changed in 1978 with the passage of the DC Historic Landmark and Historic Preservation Act.  Effective application of the powers enabled by the Act came slowly, but that Act came in time to be the pillar of what is now one of the strongest, if not the strongest, historic preservation programs in the country.

That "historic preservation" has its critics is a truism.  Too rigid.  Too absolute. Resistant to change.  Inimical to neighborhood growth and development.  Forcing high costs on home renovations.  And certainly over the decades there have been strong, inevitable angry battles over particular projects --the "Shotgun House," Hine School, more.   But it is the measures of time and scale that gives us the best assessment.  The Capitol Hill Historic District, composed of about 8,000 properties, has been shaped by historic preservation law for four decades.  What do we have?  A neighborhood, distinctive in style and scale, that is found on "Best Neighborhoods in the US" lists,  one that draws visitors and new residents not only from the metropolitan area,  but also from throughout the country and indeed other countries.  Just hear the many languages spoken at our favorite coffee shop.  As a more personal measure, Nancy and I have been doing home exchanges and a recurring theme is a strong desire to spend time in our neighborhood.

This great achievement came through an historic preservation program that has maintained its political strength against sometimes fierce forces and did so by embracing change while maintaining our neighborhood's special qualities, qualities that for many of us are the reasons we live here.   Development is marching up Pennsylvania Avenue.  Our neighbors are reshaping houses to fit their needs, and finding that they can do so at reasonable costs and within the principles of historic preservation.   What's ahead?  Surely, as has been true for decades, more fights over this or that project or development or raze.  But constant will be our common goal of protecting our special neighborhood.