Category Archives: Preservation

West Heating Plant Plans Made Public

West Heating Plant

UPDATE: GM had the dates wrong. The charette is next Tuesday, October 8th.

Next weekTonight the public will finally get its first glimpse at the plans that the Levy Group/Four Seasons have in store for the West Heating Plant property. The meting tonight will be focused mainly on the public park-elements to the plan. This will be followed up by a wider discussion on the building itself in a couple weeks.

The format of next week’stonight’s meeting is a “charette”, which is a fancy French word for “public input meeting”. GM has seen the plans for the park presented at a private meeting, and they seem pretty complete. So he’s not sure what input is being sought, but there’s always room for modification.

The plans call for a public park on the south side of the property (where the gas tanks are now). The park will be somewhat elevated from the perspective of 29th st., and will flow down to Rock Creek on the east side. It will wrap around the east side of the building and connect to the strip of land on the north side of the building. (Interestingly, from the presentation GM viewed, he learned that the site of the building itself used to be a dry dock for the canal boats.)

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New Face on the Old Georgetown Board

Photo courtesy of Howard University.

Over the summer, the Commission of Fine Arts appointed a new member to the Old Georgetown Board: Alan Brangman.

Brangman is not a new face to Georgetown. He served as the University Architect for Georgetown University from 1994 to 2010, overseeing some dramatic projects at the school, such as the Southwest Quad and the new business school building. He also oversaw some contentious projects like the Wormley School and the GU boathouse. In the face of opposition, the former was abandoned and the later has been endlessly delayed. This experience in knowing A. how things get done, and B. how things get blocked will serve Brangman well in his new role approving the design of such projects.

In addition to having a long career in the architecture and planning field, interestingly enough Brangman was once mayor of Falls Church. Continue reading


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Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy Celebrates it First Year

Way back in September of 2003, GM and his roommate were living in a cramped and drab “garden level” apartment in Courthouse. Unhappy with their accommodations, they decided to break their lease and look for something better. GM stumbled on a listing in the back pages of the City Paper, and it sounded too good to be true: a spacious two bedroom apartment looking out over Montrose Park for only $1,500 a month.

It wasn’t until after GM submitted the application and was sweating-out the credit check that he stumbled on the beauty that is Dumbarton Oaks Park. Here right in the heart of the city was a valley of brooks and bridges, dells and dogwoods. It was unlike any city park GM had ever seen before. And GM was certain that there was no way in Hell he’d be lucky enough to live so close to such a treasure. But wouldn’t you know it, he was.

So GM has a particular bond with Dumbarton Oaks Park. And when an overnight snowfall hit in 2004, GM knew a great shot was waiting:

While still stunning, the park certainly is not in great shape. The original designs of the great Beatrix Farrand have faded away as structures collapsed and invasive plants marauded the landscape. Unlike its sister Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, which is maintained by the deep pockets of Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks Park is maintained on a shoestring budget by the National Park Service. Into this gap last year entered the new Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Continue reading


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The Myth of the Apple Store

Georgetown is subject to its share of popular but wrong myths. None is more prevalent–or wrong–as the myth that resident opposition to a Metro stop is why there’s no station here. It persists as a myth because it comports with what a lot of people think about Georgetowners (and in turn reinforces those opinions).

Well, GM has noticed another myth is starting to take hold: that the oppressive design review of the Old Georgetown Board is why it took the Apple Store two years to open in Georgetown.

Like many myths, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of it. Namely, it is true that it took Apple a long time to get design approval for the new building. But first of all, it didn’t take two years, it took 19 months. The first design was submitted for review in September 2007 and the final design was approved in March 2009. But, yes, a year and a half is rather a long time to get design approval.

But whose fault was the delay?

This is the design Apple first submitted:

Look familiar? It should, it’s almost exactly the same as the final design. But the Old Georgetown Board rejected this first design, expressing concern over the wall of unbroken windows that would be presented to the street. The focus was on scale, not necessarily style. The board simply thought a wall of glass with no articulation (i.e., window frames, transoms, etc.) was too inconsistent with the buildings around it. They even encouraged Apple to submit a modern design, just one that addressed this concern.

It wasn’t a flat out no, it was simply a request to make some tweaks to the design. Maybe you disagree with that request, but so long as you want any sort of design review of construction in a historic neighborhood, you’ve got to accept that you might not always agree with the design reviewers. (And if you think Georgetown would be better off with no design review, check out this monstrosity in Glover Park and ask whether you’d like to see that in Georgetown).

Besides, this request didn’t need to add materially to the length of the review process. Apple could have come back next month with some options to appease the OGB. But they didn’t.

They waited.

And waited.

It wasn’t until nine months later that Apple came back with new designs. And rather than make a few tweaks, they came back with an ice cube: Continue reading


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So You Want to Make Some Changes to Your House? Start Here…

GM learned the other day that the DC Council is taking up consideration of the Historic District Property Notification Act of 2011. What this law would do is to ensure that a notice is sent to every homeowner of a house in DC’s historic districts, including Georgetown, reminding them of what additional approval requirements apply to such homes.

This is long overdue and hopefully will make a difference towards reducing unauthorized construction in historic districts. But why wait for the legislation? GM will fill you in right now on what you need to know.

What Changes Need Approval?

The simple answer is basically all changes. Here are some ostensibly small changes that need approval:

  • New Windows
  • Adding HVAC to roof
  • New porch railing

And of course more dramatic changes obviously also require approval. Basically, there’s a fairly good chance that just about any physical change to the exterior of your house that you can imagine requires at least some minimal approval.

There is once exception to that rule (and an exception to the exception): paint. If you simply want to paint your house a new color, it does not need design review. However, if you have one of those plaques on the front of your house, like this:

Photo by Rich Renomeron.

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Update on Easements and Taxes

Photo by John-Morgan.

A couple weeks ago, GM alerted you about potential problems with taking a tax write-off for donating a preservation easement on your house. What inspired the notice was that the Department of Justice won a lawsuit against an organization that was accepting easements and informing people that they could write-off up to 15% of the value of the home in doing so.

The thrust of DOJ’s action was that the trust was misleading people when it told them they could write-off that much. But GM mistakenly conflated that argument with the fact that the IRS itself is highly dubious that easements have any value and thus should not provide any tax write-offs, particularly if the home is protected by historic preservation laws. GM argued that that was faulty logic because preservation easements do in fact offer stronger protections than the laws do. Continue reading


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IRS Cracking Down on Easement Tax Dodge

As reported by the Post (which has turned the issue into quite a hobby-horse) the IRS is cracking down on a tax shelter that many Georgetowners may themselves have used.

The basic idea is this: property owners can give conservation easements to historical preservation groups which gives the non-profit the right to object to any changes made to the facade of the house. The donor of the easement can then theoretically write-off from his or her taxes the estimated reduction of the value of the house.

The problem, as first identified by the Post several years ago, is that homeowners grossly overestimate the value of the reduction in home value. The IRS argues that when a homeowner in a neighborhood like Georgetown encumbers his home with a facade easement, he’s not really encumbering his home with any more restrictions than already exist due to the aggressive preservation laws already in place.

One company that was pitching this shelter apparently was telling homeowners that they could write off 15% of the value of their home after giving the easement. The IRS thinks that’s a huge over-estimate. And now a federal judge agrees.

According to the government complaint, the defendants falsely told prospective customers that, in exchange for donating easements on their historic properties preventing façade alteration, the customers could claim charitable deductions equal to 10 to 15 percent of the property value, and that this range reflected official IRS policy. In fact, the complaint alleges, the IRS never had any such policy, and the actual value of façade easements, if any, must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The complaint also alleges that the defendants manipulated the easement appraisal process by steering donors to appraisers who the defendants knew would employ the 10-to-15-percent valuation method, leading to improper appraisals that yielded large tax deductions regardless of the easements’ actual effect on property value.

The IRS seems to be basing most of its case on the false statements. But it also appears to be assuming that easements on houses in places like Georgetown are kind of worthless given the presence of entities like the Old Georgetown Board, which already restrict what a homeowner can do. GM doesn’t think that’s quite right. Continue reading


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Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy Formed

Dumbarton Oaks Park is an absolutely serene treasure that is in absolutely terrible shape. A newly formed group aims to fix that. Named the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, this group has ambitious plans to bring the park back to the state it was in when it was first shaped by the legendary Beatrix Farrand. It will be a long, long slog to get to that point, but from what GM hears, the organizers are up to the task.

The History

For those not familiar with Dumbarton Oaks Park, it’s twenty-seven acres of wilderness and Italian romanticism, all hidden away in the northern boundaries of Georgetown. It, along with the Dumbarton Oaks mansion and gardens formed the original Dumbarton Oaks estate.

Robert and Mildred Bliss bought Dumbarton Oaks in 1920. They soon after hired Beatrix Farrand–an influential landscape architect who had already established her reputation with her work at the White House and the National Cathedral–to reshape the gardens and grounds of the estate.  Farrand, for her part, had studied extensively the Italian renaissance style of gardens and brought that expertise to bear on her work for the Blisses.

While the gardens and grounds immediately around the mansion are quite formal, Farrand’s plans for the land that ultimately became Dumbarton Oaks Park were rustic and natural. In fact, according to Historic American Buildings Survey, much of the natural landscape of the park predated Farrand’s work there. In other words, Farrand made her work accommodate the nature she found there, rather than vice versa.

While Farrand worked around nature, she certainly left her stamp. Walking through the park, one can still see the bridges and waterfalls Farrand planned, as well as the path through the meadow she laid out. Continue reading


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What Lies Beneath: Cobblestones, That’s What

GM happened to notice this weekend that a couple small patches of asphalt on 31st St.29th st. have eroded away to reveal the wonderful cobblestones that lie beneath (alright, if you must be a stickler, they’re really called Belgian blocks or setts, but let’s not get hung up on that).

GM tried to do a little research to find out how many of Georgetown’s streets still have these stones underneath the asphalt, but came up empty-handed. At the very least 31st street does (Update: an astute reader pointed out that this photo is of 29th st., not 31st. But GM does remember seeing Belgian blocks on 31st when they repaved it last year). Obviously there are cobblestones on O and P where you can still see the streetcar tracks, but (for now at least) those tracks and the stone continue underneath the asphalt along the route’s old loop by the University. (The tracks currently under asphalt will be removed during the streets’ rehabilitation, which is set to begin later this year). Continue reading


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A Pity Upon A Hill

A Pity Upon A Hill

On a hill overlooking Georgetown sits a shameful display of neglect on the part of Georgetown University: Holy Rood Cemetery. Built by Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church in 1832, the cemetery has a strong connection to the neighborhood’s history. It is the final resting place of generations of Georgetown’s German and Irish Catholics as well as up to 1000 slaves and free Black residents.

And today it is a mess.

Grave stones are toppled left and right. Weeds grow through the cracks. The overall feeling you get visiting it is that it has been abandoned. Check it out:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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