Research Under Way for Historic Expansion

Posted December 10, 2007 at 6:04pm

Several members of the Capitol Hill community, in conjunction with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, have begun surveying dozens of city blocks in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants in an effort to see whether they should be added to the Capitol Hill Historic District.

The current historic district, established in the 1970s, is one of the largest in the nation with some 8,000 primary buildings included.

“If [the blocks that are currently being surveyed] were to qualify, they would probably become part of the Capitol Hill Historic District and that would certainly make us the largest in the country,” said Dick Wolf, the restoration society’s president.

At present, the historic district fills a roughly rectangular area stretching from near the Capitol in the west to 14th Street in the east, and from F Street in the north to Interstate 395 in the south.

“The impetus for expansion is the desire to ensure that new development and building alterations are compatible with the existing building stock and that we as a community can preserve structures that are important to our historic environment and context,” Amanda Molson, chairwoman of the CHRS Communications Committee, wrote in an e-mail.

The CHRS is supporting the survey effort, which originated in the community, by training volunteers to complete the surveys and helping them find grants.

In order for a city block to become a part of the historic district, every structure on it must be surveyed. The process involves extensive research on the history of the building.

Some of the research is finished on site and some through use of maps, building permits and other information available in archives, said Donna Hanousek, the chairwoman of the special CHRS committee Beyond the Boundaries. The builder, architect and construction materials also are included in the survey.

“Then you’ve got to do research on the neighborhood and kind of get a story to show people where it fits in the development,” Hanousek said.

Once the surveys are complete they are compiled in a book. Each structure has its own page, which features a photo of the house and the research results.

At this time, the CHRS and the volunteers are able to gauge whether the area would qualify as a possible historic district. In the event that it does, and locals are sure they want their neighborhood to have this classification, the survey is sent to the city’s historic preservation office to see if it garners a staff recommendation.

“You don’t start talking about historic expansion until the surveys are completed,” Hanousek said, adding that she thinks it will take a year or two to finish them all. “There’s a wide gulf between here and there. The main thing is the community has to decide that it wants the protection of a historic district.”

These protections require that the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board approve all renovations.

Once a community gains a staff recommendation, members will go before the Historic Preservation Review Board to present their research and explain why the neighborhood should be classified as such.

Several Capitol Hill residents helping with the surveys said the work has been fun and educational.

Carol Green, a retired federal employee who lives near the Potomac Avenue Metro stop, said her desire to learn more about her home led to her involvement.

“I have visited the National Archives and pulled permits for my house and some of my neighbors’ from 1926,” she said. “I find it fascinating to know that the space where my house now stands was once a baseball diamond, according to a permit issued to erect a scoreboard.”

Annie Earley, who has lived in the District for seven years, got involved in the survey effort after doing research on building permits for her office.

“I feel that I can learn an incredible amount from longtime residents who have taken on community affairs and development as almost a second full-time job,” she said. “And, of course, it’s fun.”

Earley is working with Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A to conduct a survey of the Rosedale neighborhood located near 15th Street Northeast and Benning Road. “Once all of the data has been collected, which is an entirely volunteer-led process, the neighborhood can better ascertain if we should pursue historic district status,” she said.

CHRS also has started working with residents of the Barney Circle neighborhood near Congressional Cemetery in Southeast, Wolf said.

The survey project, he added, is “really quite an elaborate effort.”