South by West

Tiber Island Historic Designation Favored at Hearing

Tiber Island was one of the first residential buildings constructed south of M Street SW as a result of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo: William Rich

 

Tiber Island Co-ops and Condominiums is the latest residential complex in Southwest to seek historic designation. The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) submitted an application last fall at the request of the Boards of the Co-Op and Condominium communities to be nominated to the District and National historic registers.

Designed by the architecture firm Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon and built between 1963-65, Tiber Island comprises 8.4 acres and is situated south of M Street SW between 6 th Street SW and 4th Street SW, north of N Street SW. Tiber Island was originally designed as rental apartments and townhomes, but over time became two entities – a co-op containing four high-rise towers and townhomes near the center of the development, with the remaining townhomes primarily along the perimeter under condominium ownership. The four towers form a pinwheel around a central plaza and the townhomes are placed in a manner that creates a series of courtyards and passageways throughout the community. On the west side of the complex is a Great Lawn and adjacent to it is the Thomas Law House, which was built in 1794 and now serves as a community center (it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973).

In the application, a couple of the arguments used to merit designation under the National Register’s Criterion A (The property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of our history) include:

  • Its construction was a significant step in the redevelopment of Southwest Washington in accordance with the principles of modem urban planning, including effective use of green space and mixed housing types. It was the first such redevelopment project to be created by an entirely local design and development team, and marks the beginning of Washington's recognition as an incubator of first-rate architectural talent in the face of previous disrespect and skepticism.

  • It was the focus of a pioneering effort to expand and enforce the concept of open housing prior to the passage of the 1965 Fair Housing bill.

 

In addition, the application states some reasons for designation under Criterion C (Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction) such as:

  • Provides an outstanding example of modernist architecture and urbanism. It represents a unique fusion of architecture, modem construction technology, landscape architecture, and community planning. It was an outstanding model for the appearance and development of the District of Columbia and the nation, and has been cited as such by architectural critics and commentators since it was built.

 

  • Possesses high artistic or aesthetic values, as illustrated by the accolades and awards it has received. Of particular significance is the AlA "First Award" received in 1966, with such masterpieces as Eero Saarinen Associates' Dulles Airport Terminal and CBS Headquarters cited as peers.

 

A public hearing was held on May 24 by the Historic Preservation Review Board to consider the Tiber Island application. One of the homeowners who testified in favor of designation was Cecille Chen. “I fell in love with Tiber Island the very first moment that we saw it,” said Chen, who with her husband searched all over the District for a home. “We really love the aesthetic aspects of it – no building faces directly into another building, there is a sense of luxurious space, all this glass, the clean lines all really appeal to us.” Chen also serves as president of the condominium board and has worked with SWNA on the Southwest DC Heritage Project, which in recent months commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy with a large event at the Titanic memorial on the Southwest Waterfront.

Other parties in favor included a representative from the Tiber Island Cooperative board, as well as Andy Litsky, Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D, which voted unanimously to support the application last year, and Kael Anderson, President of SWNA. Not everyone present at the hearing was in favor – opponents of the designation were mainly residents of Tiber Island Condominiums, who were concerned about needing to change the bylaws of the condo association if their property was deemed historic. Another concern from opponents was the process was being rushed and was done without the consent of the majority of condo owners. However, one of the HPRB members said that to be considered for inclusion in the District’s Register of Historic Places, owner consent is not necessary (although majority consent is needed for inclusion in the National Register).

Ultimately, the Board was unanimous in its support of the application, with some members urging the Historic Preservation Office and community to consider creating a Southwest Historic District. Members thought a piecemeal approach to historic designation was not the best route and that creating a historic district would be a better option. For instance, Potomac Place Tower at 800 4th Street SW was designated by the HPRB as historic in 2003, while Harbour Square Cooperatives has an application pending for historic designation. River Park is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and other residential buildings in Southwest are approaching the half century mark, which makes it easier to apply for historic designation. Whether there is enough community support to create a historic district in Southwest is uncertain – the Historic Preservation Office staff members do not feel that there is sufficient support yet since there is still some debate whether the wholesale removal of a community in the guise of urban renewal should be commemorated with a historic district.

William Rich is a blogger at Southwest…The Little Quadrant that Could (www.southwestquadrant.blogspot.com).


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