Historic preservation is an important way to save buildings that make major aesthetic or historic contributions to our communities. But sometimes, it can be used as an excuse to stop future development from occurring. That’s what two groups are doing in Friendship Heights.
Two groups, the Tenleytown Historical Society and the DC Preservation League, are trying to get historic designation for nine, four-unit apartment buildings at 4315-4351 Harrison St NW, which lie across the alley from a WMATA bus garage the same groups have tried and failed to landmark since 2012. They argue the buildings, built in 1936, satisfy several landmark criteria, including that the buildings “are significant for their arrangement around a shared central hall.”
What the applicants don’t say is that the row of apartments sits on the edge of the RA-2 zone, which permits medium-density apartments. In fact, a builder recently redeveloped one of the four-unit buildings, 4343, into an eight-unit condo built entirely matter-of-right. Perhaps this redevelopment and densification sparked the applicants’ mysteriously sudden interest in these buildings.
The historic landmark application reveals the buildings display a few nice decorative elements, but do they merit historic protection?
The arguments for historic preservation don’t add up
The groups make several arguments for why these buildings are historic, but they don’t tell the full story. For instance, the application states the apartments are “representative of early housing in Friendship Heights.”
But a closer analysis of historic building permits reveals 60% percent of permits for housing in Friendship Heights were issued before these apartments’ permits, and not a single one of these permits shares the Harrison Street apartments’ designation of “Attached.” In fact, 87% of residential permits issued before the Harrison Street apartments were for detached or duplex houses. The Harrison Street apartments are not representative of early housing in the neighborhood.
The application states that the builder, Michael A. Mess, was inspired by the Washington Sanitary Improvement Company and the Washington Sanitary Housing Company (WSHC), which were two philanthropic builders that limited investor dividends to make housing more affordable for working class residents. It’s true that Mess rented his new apartments below the market rate for similar apartments, but voluntary rent control in the 1930s hardly merits historic designation today.
This building type, sometimes called a “mansion apartment,” was really common in the DC area during the 1930s and 1940s. The applicants say these buildings are significant for their “outward appearance and sense of scale of single-family homes arranged as flats on the interior,” but that’s something one could say about any small, four-unit apartment building in the District. It’s unclear whether these buildings have something else that sets them apart.
One common argument for historic preservation in DC is landmark criterion C-10, which includes “Buildings that are the work of skilled architects, landscape planners, urban planners, engineers, builders, or developers.” Prolific DC architect Appleton P. Clark (1865-1955) designed the row of apartments, but he designed 530 buildings in the District, many of far greater historical significance. And the Harrison Street apartments rank among Clark’s least ornate and representative works, which include Riggs National Bank, Imani Temple, or Heurich House.
Both the Comprehensive Plan and the existing zoning map allow this section of Harrison Street to contain denser housing. That’s what should go here. We have seen this tactic before, where anti-neighbors abuse the historic preservation system to zone for lower density instead, which means fewer housing opportunities and higher prices for everyone. Historic preservation is important, but saving these buildings isn’t worth giving up scarce, transit-adjacent land.