Historic preservation has become an important tool for many municipalities to maintain their character through the historic sites and places that have helped define them. Washington DC has been a leading city in the preservation movement from inception with the fight to preserve the nearby home of founding father George Washington at Mount Vernon in the late 19th century. The members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association were among the first in the nation to recognize the importance and value of preserving iconic sites associated with significant figures in the nation’s history. Another important moment locally came when Don’t Tear It Down, the precursor to the DC Preservation League, was established to save the Old Post Office building from demolition in the 1970s. Over time the field of preservation has shifted focus to become more inclusive in the types of places and stories it works to preserve, attempting to include previously underrepresented people and communities. Until recently efforts focused on sites associated with men who held prominent positions in society, and often left out places important to the stories of women, minorities, and diverse socio-economic groups. As we re-examine what is to be considered worthy of preservation, places like the area of working class housing adjacent to South Capitol St. in Southwest begin to more fully display their importance in DC’s story. This area has already seen some recognition through the landmark designation of the William Syphax School and the James C. Dent Residence, but it now seems appropriate to look at the larger context around these landmarks.
In early 2017 a group of people who live in the area of Southwest that we are considering as “Old Southwest” approached the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) asking our organization to explore the possibility of nominating the area for DC historic district status. Their request was driven by concerns of the increased pace of new development, much of which appeared to be undertaken with little consideration for integration with the existing community. There was also concern over losing the mixed and low-income single-family housing, with its increasingly distinct low-rise residential working-class character. SWNA agreed to explore the potential for a nomination, and applied for and received a grant from the DC Preservation League to hire a consultant to do the research and preparation of a nomination for the Old Southwest Historic District. The SWNA board has since held two community meetings and other informal discussions for residents of the potentially affected district to inform them of the proposal, discuss some of the possible impacts of designation (should the board decide to submit the nomination), and solicit feedback for the decision-making process. Information about the project and historic designation in DC has also been made available on the SWNA website at http://www.swdc.org/old-southwest, along with an online survey to collect additional input from residents. The SWNA board has agreed to follow the process through the preparation of a nomination utilizing the DC Preservation League grant. They will then meet to decide on submission of that nomination based on all community feedback received and the merits of the drafted nomination. The summary for this nomination follows, discussing the potential boundaries and the historic significance of this portion of the neighborhood:
“The Old Southwest Historic District is located in the Southwest quadrant of Washington, DC. The neighborhood area contains the only intact examples of working-class dwellings that characterized Southwest Washington before the urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s. The area reflects the developmental patterns of the Southwest quadrant of Washington and the city as a whole. The district is comprised largely of residential properties with some commercial and industrial properties. The district is roughly bounded by South Capitol, M, 2nd, and Q Streets SW. The residential properties include a wide variety of workers housing constructed between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Some of these properties were constructed by private individuals, however the majority of dwellings were constructed as part of public initiatives to clear alley houses and construct better housing for the working class. The period of significance for the Old Southwest Historic District spans 1892, the date of construction for the 19th Century Rowhouses located on South Capitol Street, to 1958, the date of construction for the Syphax Gardens Public Housing.”
When it is finalized the full nomination prepared by our consultants, along with any associated documents we may receive, will be made available on the SWNA website for the community to read. In addition, a final community meeting for the wider Southwest community will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on October 11 at Arena Stage. This will be an opportunity to outline the project with a wider audience of community members, review highlights of the final draft of the nomination, and discuss questions raised earlier in the process about the potential impacts of historic designation. If you would like to submit a statement to the SWNA board for their consideration regarding your position on this effort we encourage you to do so in writing, providing us with a copy at the meeting or submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, as we have a limited amount of time to utilize the space generously donated to us by Arena Stage for this meeting. Please join us for this community discussion of the Old Southwest Historic District nomination.
By: Ryan Pierce
Chair, SWNA History Task Force