Tiber Island residential units on the waterfront. (Photo by Cecille Chen)

What does preservation mean in Washington?  The city’s appointed Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) decides which sites (usually buildings, but also gardens, parks, radio towers and other strange things) qualify for “landmarking” (protection).  If the Board approves a nominated site, any alterations to the place that require a building permit are reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff to see that the planned construction will not radically alter the appearance of the building.

Almost all sites in Washington have only an exterior designation, meaning that there is no protection for the interior of the building.  Standard work on a building – windows, porches, etc. – are handled fairly quickly by HPO. Larger alterations, such as adding new stories or extensions to a building, must be approved by HRPB.  Many landmarked buildings in the city have had extensive alterations, but it is often a drawn-out process.  Painting a building does not require a building permit, and so is not a concern of HPO.

The District also has a fair number of historic districts.  These are specified areas in which all buildings built before a specific year are protected exactly as if they had been individually landmarked.  The design of new buildings in such districts must also be reviewed by the HPRB.  The idea of a historic district is that the individual buildings are not significant enough to warrant protection but that the collection of places is significant.

Sites can also be listed on the Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places, but this only gives recognition to the building and does nothing to protect it.

Nominations for listing sites on the city’s register of historic places include four main elements: the history of the building; a description of the appearance of the place; photographs; and a map.  The history is by far the hardest part of this nomination because of the specialized research needed to write it.  Professional researchers will often charge over $10,000 for writing a nomination.  Nominations can be submitted only by the owner of the building, a local ANC or a registered organization that specifically includes historic preservation in its charter.

Once a nomination is received at HPO, the building is protected until the HPRB actually hears the case and decides up or down.

Here are some of the sites in Southwest that are currently on the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites.

  • Army War College (National Defense University), Fort McNair, P Street between Third and Fourth streets SW.
  • Duncanson-Cranch House (Barney Neighborhood House), 468-470 N St. SW.
  • Fort McNair Historic District (Washington Arsenal), Fourth and P streets SW.
  • Friendship Baptist Church, 734 First St. SW.
  • Thomas Law House (Honeymoon House), 1252 Sixth St. SW.
  • Edward Simon Lewis House, 456 N St. SW.
  • Elizabeth G. Randall Junior High School (Cardozo School), 65 I St. SW.
  • Saint Dominic’s Church, 630 E St. SW.
  • William Syphax School, 1360 Half St. SW.
  • Titanic Memorial, Water and P streets SW.
  • Wheat Row, 1315-1321 Fourth St. SW.
  • James C. Dent House, 156 Q St. SW
  • Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.
  • Capitol Park Apartments, 800 Fourth St. SW.
  • Tiber Island, 401-461 N St. SW, 430-490 M St. SW, 1201-1264 Fourth St. SW, 1262 Sixth St. SW.

These sites have been nominated but not yet heard:

  • Harbour Square , Fourth and O streets SW.
  • Lunch Room and Oyster Shucking Shed (the little brick buildings at the Fish Market).

–By Hayden M. Wetzel

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