When a Landmark Isn’t a Landmark

When is a landmark not a landmark? That is a question that the DC Historical Preservation Review Board is scheduled to decide in December. Specifically, they are being asked to consider removing historic landmark status from the property at 1524 33rd St.

You may recognize the photo above from an article that GM wrote last March questioning the supposed history of the building. In short, it has been long claimed that this property was once a notable 18th century tavern where figures such as Thomas Jefferson once dined. It was supposedly called the Yellow Tavern and/or the White Horse Inn. When the house was put up for sale, GM dug a little into the story, expecting to find evidence of its historic importance. Instead he discovered that this property was almost certainly not either the Yellow Tavern or the White Horse Inn, despite the large brass plaque on the front of the house declaring it to be. It wasn’t even clear to GM that it ever was a tavern at all.

Perhaps inspired by GM’s report, the Post did its own digging into the story and uncovered a hidden history to how the property “became” a landmark. After concluding like GM that there was no evidence it was the Yellow Tavern, writer Kathy Orton wrote:

If the tavern was not on 33rd Street, how did the house come to have the plaque? It seems that Mrs. Sydney Small, who owned the house, wanted to enhance its prestige, so she persuaded her friend Mrs. Freeland Peter to commission the plaque.

In a 1968 letter that Eleanor Lee Templeman wrote to Theodore French, she describes what happened. The letter is on file at the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Library.

According to Templeman, Mrs. Peter, who was president of the District of Columbia chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, appointed her to serve as chairman of historical activities. Her first responsibility was to have the plaque cast and placed outside the house of her friend Mrs. Small. Mrs. Peter gave Templeman the information for the text, telling her that she and her husband had authenticated its veracity.

“I later realized that I should have personally rechecked the documentation,” Templeman wrote.

Not long after the plaque was installed, Templeman wrote, its errors were brought to her attention. She reached out to Mrs. Peter and offered to pay for a corrected plaque. But Mrs. Peter vetoed her suggestion.

“Knowing that this marker is incorrect, I feel duty-bound to attempt to straighten out the error, including my personal responsibility in the matter,” Templeman wrote. “I believe we should retrieve the plaque and have it destroyed.”

Granted, lots of properties across the country have plaques on the front of them falsely claiming that Washington slept there, etc. But what makes this case unusual is that the new owners of the property, a real estate investment firm called Coba Properties, filed an application to legally remove that plaque and the landmark status with it. The application (which cites to both the Georgetown Metropolitan and the Post’s articles) explains why:

The designation of 1524 33rd Street, NW as a Historic Landmark was built on the earlier efforts by the National Society, Colonial Dames of America, who installed a bronze historic plaque on the building in 1949 at a cost of $97.30.

The efforts to see that the building was designated as a Historic Landmark were spearheaded by the owner of the building in the 1960’s, Mrs. Sydney Small working with the National Society, Colonial Dames of America, District of Columbia Chapter.

Interestingly, only a few years after the installation of the historic plaque at the building, the Colonial Dames realized that there had been an error and sought to have it rectified / corrected as further research had shown that the building was in-fact not the site of the Yellow Tavern, but rather two early Federal period rowhouses.

The reason for Mrs. Small believing that her house could in fact be the location of the Yellow Tavern is understandable given that folklore had incorrectly identified it as being so. This can be seen in a map from 1937 that identifies it as a place to see as part of a tour of historic Georgetown, as well as in other books on Georgetown that also noted it as the location of the historic Yellow Tavern.

But the applicant concludes, like GM and the Post before it, that this was a mistaken belief and the real Yellow Tavern looked nothing like the 33rd St. house and wasn’t at the same location regardless. So the landmark status was simply based on false information and was granted in error.

But why strip the status? Well, they are a real estate investment firm. And GM figures that the property not being a historic landmark will make it somewhat easier to develop. But, as the application itself notes, the property will still be protected under all the laws that impact all the other properties in Georgetown. So it’s not entirely clear to GM how much easier it will be to get plans approved for the property. But it’s probably something significant enough to warrant the effort.


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