The residential complex Tiber Island has filed a request for landmark designation with the D.C. Inventory of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. After evaluation by D.C. historic preservation staff and a Historic Preservation Review Board hearing, the board votes on the designation. The Board also decides whether to recommend the property for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture. National Register properties have significance to the history of their community, state or the nation. Administered by the National Park Service the goals are to help property owners and interest groups, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, coordinate, identify and protect historic sites in the United States. While National Register listings are mostly symbolic, their recognition of significance provides some financial incentive to owners of listed properties. Protection of the property is not guaranteed.
The complex, constructed between 1963 and 1965, includes 368 apartments divided among four nine-story towers, 85 single-family townhouses and the 18th-century Thomas Law House. The buildings are linked by a network of landscaped courts, quadrangles and walkways, an arrangement specifically designed to separate the pedestrian experience from vehicular traffic. The property is bounded by M, N, Sixth, and Fourth Streets. It was the first condominium project built in D.C. and the “proof of concept” for a type of ownership that’s become common today.
The fall of 2011 will mark the 47 anniversary of Tiber Island’s opening. To be considered for landmark designation, the National Park Service requires that properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years be of “exceptional importance…to a community, a state, a region, or the nation.” The construction of Tiber Island was a critical component of the redevelopment of Southwest as the first project following modern urban planning principles in the area, including effective use of green space and mixed housing types. It was the first redevelopment project to be created entirely by a local design and development team, marking the beginning of Washington being recognized as a city with first-rate architectural talent. And the design has not only greatly influenced the future architecture of the city of Washington but also has been acknowledged by the national architectural community and popular press. Among other awards, Tiber Island won the American Institute of Architects’ highest national award in 1966.
In addition, the property was key to the development of anti-discrimination regulations and legislation at the local and national levels before passage of the 1965 Fair Housing bill. The planned involvement of a firm developing Tiber Island was challenged by anti-discrimination organizations because the firm had a history of racial discrimination. As cited in the landmark application, Richard Longstreth, a historian, noted that “This episode led to a Civil Rights Commission hearing, which, in turn, influenced President Kennedy’s executive order banning such discrimination in federally-assisted housing, signed in November 1962.” The dispute was extensively reported in the newspapers and was an important chapter in the struggle for open housing across the country.
As one of the early buildings in the newly redeveloped Southwest, Tiber Island inhabited a transitioning neighborhood with only a few restaurants and stores selling staple items. To counteract residents’ feeling isolated, Tiber Island planned activities and cultural events, including evening concerts in the central plaza as well as fashion shows and dance exhibitions. In addition, the complex uses one of the few Southwest buildings that remained from before the redevelopment, the Thomas Law House, as a gathering place. Built in 1794, the house was originally the home of a speculator associated with the Greenleaf Syndicate, which controlled many building lots in the area and developed the nearby wharves on the Potomac River. Later, the house became a hotel and then a medical clinic before the Redevelopment Land Agency took possession of it by eminent domain in the 1960s.
As the landmark designation application notes, “Tiber Island” was originally a nickname for the Southwest quadrant, which lay between the now-encased Tiber Creek and the marshy banks of the Potomac.