Mockup of the proposed development with the temple on the right, as viewed from S Street. Image by Perseus TDC / Hickok Cole.

A group of residents has filed a historic landmark application in a last-ditch attempt to block an apartment building on the site adjacent to the Scottish Rite Temple in Dupont Circle. But rather than arguing for the preservation of the area’s history, the applicants want to fix what they see as a historic mistake.

Faced with declining membership and falling revenue, the Scottish Rite Masons have partnered with developer Perseus TDC to build an apartment building on the east side of their temple site at 15th and S streets NW.

While many residents support the project, it has also faced opposition since it was first announced for a host of familiar reasons. Opponents have cited parking, traffic, height and massing, architecture, aquifer disruption, and even the inclusion of below-ground units as specific concerns. But the overarching theme of these complaints seems mostly to be a blanket opposition to any development at all, manifiesting in arguments about the need to preserve green space as well as the views of the temple from the back.

Opponents turned to historic preservation to block the project

Unlike other new developments in the city that have faced similar pushback, however, this is a by-right project, so the usual chokepoints of zoning hearings or community benefits agreements aren’t in play.

Instead, opponents adopted the increasingly popular tactic of appealing to historic preservation to try to affect the same goals. Since the lot falls within two historic districts (it straddles the 14th Street and 16th Street districts), new construction is subject to design review to ensure compatibility with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

That review took place at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) meeting in November and critics flooded the room to share their concerns. While the board agreed with requiring changes to some of the specific elements of the design, they did not concur with the broader argument that they should nullify the project entirely to preserve views of the temple.

Their reason was pretty straightforward: Preserving those views wouldn’t actually be preserving history, because historically the views never existed at all. The empty lot itself only dates to the 1980s and 90s when the Masons finished buying up and razing all of the houses next to the temple. As the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff report explained, “having been created in the past 25 years, [the empty lot] is not part of the temple landmark and not recognized as contributing to the historic districts in which it is located.”

Interestingly enough, the Masons also faced opposition at the time for removing the townhouses, and the demolition was one of the factors that spurred neighbors to advocate for the block’s inclusion into a historic district. If that historic application had been approved prior to the razes, the open space never would have existed in the first place.

Yet another complaint on “historic” grounds

HPRB’s ruling would seem to have put the issue to rest, but in March opponents tried another tack. Forming an organization called the Dupont East Civic Action Association (“a new association of neighbors formed to organize opposition to the Masonic development”), they filed a historic landmark application to extend the boundaries of the Scottish Rite Temple landmark itself to encompass the back lot.

Unconventionally, their argument is not particularly steeped in appeals to the history of the site. Rather, they lay out an explicit desire for HPRB to use this as a historical corrective:

“The problem isn’t with where the temple building was placed, but rather with how the District government later developed that spot not in accordance with the governing L’Enfant Plan for the District. Landmarking the entire site would be an appropriate way of correcting the District government’s mistake and permitting the Scottish Rite Temple to stand freely on a square on that spot as intended by Pierre L’Enfant.”

This is not historic preservation; this is historic revisionism. To be sure, balancing the need for new residences and open spaces is an important city conversation. But it’s one that takes place through the standard planning process where all the city’s priorities can be taken into account. Trying to disguise a decision about future land use as a historic appeal in order to subvert that democratic process is disingenuous.

In its staff report released this week, the HPO stands its ground, and recommends against approving the expansion nomination:

There is no historic argument for or planning rationale for a deliberate recreation of such conjectural elements in isolation of existing or historic conditions. The proposed amendment to the Scottish Rite Temple calls for “protecting” an open space that never existed on paper beyond the original 1791 Plan and was never created as part of the city plan.

HPRB will consider the nomination at their May 23 meeting. If HPRB members disagree with this staff report and agree with the nomination, they'll set an even more dangerous precedent for abuse of the historic preservation system.

If you're interested in learning more about this project, head to the ANC 2B meeting tonight, Wednesday, May 1 at 7 pm in the Fellowship Hall on the second floor of Foundry United Methodist Church at 1500 16th Street NW.