This is not what 3rd floor corner additions should look like. Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.
Additional floors on top of historic rowhouses, sometimes called “pop-ups,” are one of the most reviled modifications outside historic districts. And for good reason: they’re typically ugly, cheap, and stick out like sore thumbs not just for their height but for the use of materials totally incompatible with the old houses.
Meanwhile, local historic boards are also known for being stalwart opponents of nearly all change, no matter how meritorious. After all, they typically attract people who like the neighborhood exactly the way it is and would just as soon it stayed exactly the same forever.
Therefore, it might be particularly surprising that the Dupont Circle Conservancy, the neighborhood historic review organization in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, endorsed an addition of a third floor atop a historic rowhouse at the corner of 15th and S, NW.
They would never approve anything even remotely like the ugly monstrosity in the picture to the right, but not all additions have to look that way. They wouldn’t even approve an addition to most houses. But historic review can ensure that additions don’t look like that, while at least in limited circumstances, allowing the growth of the buildings themselves.
The attitudes among preservationists for and against this change highlight two different philosophies of preservation, and the DCC’s support for this change reveals an evolution in preservation in DC from one to the other.
Most blocks in the area have larger apartment or commercial buildings at the corners, or else grander rowhouse-sized buildings whose longer sides form the main, front entrance (like the southwest corner of 17th and S). When the entrance is on the short side, the building is often still more distinctive, taller, or otherwise anchors the row.
1641 1461 S Street, NW viewed from 15th Street. Image from Lawlor Architects. 1641 1461 S Street (left) and the house across S (right). Photos from Lawlor Architects.
The property owner proposes to add a similar mansard roof, but with more curvature. She also wants to remove some of the rear addition to get the property down to the allowed lot occupancy, but extend the second and third floors to the rear to match the size of the first. She would also add a bay along the 15th Street side, add windows, redo the wall along the rear yard to include brick, and rebuild the garage as an office, removing the vehicular entrance to 15th.
The house currently has multiple kitchens to allow being used as multiple units, but the owner says she and her family will occupy the entire house. She has elderly relatives she takes care of, and wants the space to accommodate them as well. Houses of 3 stories plus a basement are very common in the area and allowed by zoning. Should historic preservation forbid the addition anyway? Is this house historically low? Some argue it is. The third floor would not be original, and therefore not historic. This view of historic preservation holds that whatever has been, is historic, and the job of preservation is to keep historic things the way they are (“preserved.”) The HPO staff report comes down against the addition on the grounds that HPRB has traditionally not allowed additions that modify the roofline. And, in fact, HPRB has not. Should that be an absolute rule? The Conservancy members didn’t think so. In a resolution, which I wrote, they said,
While we feel that a third story addition visible from the street should only be allowed in extraordinary circumstances, the role of this building in the larger historic district and in relation to the other corners as an anchor building justifies an exception. We feel that this project would enhance the overall character of 15th Street and therefore support the project as presented.
I and other supporters argued a different view from “historic is what’s existing, and preservation is about keeping what’s historic the same.” Instead, look at the spirit of the historic district. The U Street Historic District (which this property is in, though it’s in the Dupont Circle neighborhood by most measures), as well as the adjacent Strivers’ Section and Dupont Circle districts, are characterized by 2- and 3-story brick row houses and elegant corner buildings. Right now, this house looks to be an anomaly, a missing piece in the historic fabric. If this project went forward, the historic district would seem more complete. It would fulfill what seems to be the original architectural intent of the area. And passerby would assume that this house originally had the third floor, if it’s done right. This isn’t like the vinyl pop-ups of Petworth which clearly look to be incompatible. This makes the house appear more compatible. That requires high quality materials and good workmanship. It’s appropriate, and necessary, for the Conservancy, HPO, and HPRB to carefully monitor plans as they progress toward being final to ensure that this addition is of the highest quality and does look compatible with other, similar historic roofs. DC’s preservation movement has been declining in numbers and strength. The citywide historic groups do not get the numbers they once did at their events. Yet historic preservation is a valuable part of DC and shouldn’t fall by the wayside. Instead, we need to redefine it in a way that works with, instead of against, sustainability, urbanism, Smart Growth, and the overall value of growing DC. These needn’t be mutually exclusive. Allowing a third floor on this house while requiring the strictest adherence to architectural quality and historically compatible materials is a great way to advance all of these goals, and to improve the overall look of the neighborhood at the same time.