Database of Historic Building Permits, Squares 1000–1125
© Copyright 2001-2009, Capitol Hill Restoration Society. All rights reserved. Last updated January 28, 2009.
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Heritage Foundation Proposal at Stake
by Nancy Metzger
As part of its preparation in defense of the Historic District, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society Board of Directors at its November meeting authorized President Dick Wolf to hire an experienced historic preservation attorney to represent the Society at the Mayor’s Agent hearing on December 2. This appeal involves the proposal of the Heritage Foundation to add a third-floor addition to the 1887 Victorian building at 227 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE (shown above).
One of the chief concerns with this case is that a roof-top addition with little or no setback would greatly alter the appearance of a distinctive historic building and diminish the integrity of the historic building. While additions are an accepted part of the historic district, they have generally been limited to the rear or, if on the roof, set back so that they do not impact the front façade. In addition to the significant alteration of the building itself, the Society is concerned about the impact on this intact row of historic buildings and on the potential impact on the entire Historic District.
The Capitol Hill Historic District is recognized for its “saw-tooth” roofline — a pattern developed over two centuries as buildings of greatly different heights and styles were built next to each other. The resulting roofscape accentuates each individual building or short row of buildings that vary in height from one story to four stories and that is, in turn, animated by towers and turrets, mansard roofs, classical urns, pitched roofs with dormers, and flat roofs accented with deep cornices. The Society’s position is that such dramatic shifts in heights and styles should be celebrated and protected, not altered by allowing an addition that modulates the dramatic roofscape. Losing this case — allowing the Heritage Foundation to build a third-story addition near or at the front of the building — could well set a precedent for myriad cases across the Historic District.
Heritage’s appeal is from the decision of the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), at its September hearing, to not approve the Heritage Foundation’s proposal to construct an addition that would extend immediately above or very close to the historic cornice line. The Heritage Foundation then appealed the HPRB decision, contending that the proposed rooftop addition is consistent with the purposes of the Historic Preservation Act. Under the Act, decisions by the Historic Preservation Review Board can be appealed to the “Mayor or his agent,” which is the highest and most formal appeal. For at least the past decade, historic preservation cases have been heard by Administrative Law Judge Rohulamin Quander, however, this case is scheduled to be heard by the Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregonning.
It is not known who will represent the HPRB/the city in the appeal or whether or not they will be represented at all. In any case, CHRS must be prepared to strongly defend the decision since the Heritage Foundation is represented by one of the city’s largest land-use law firms, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pitman. Andrea Ferster, an attorney in private practice who has represented many non-profit organizations in land use and historic preservation cases, has been engaged to assist the Society with the case.
Character-defining Features at Issue: Height and Roofline
by Nancy Metzger
One of the cases considered by the Historic Preservation Committee in June concerned the addition of a third story to the former Trover’s Card Shop. After considering the case, the committee voted to oppose the addition as being incompatible with the Historic District but to support other aspects of the project. Because the committee felt the case could have serious repercussions for the historic district, the committee asked the Board to adopt a resolution underscoring the position of the Committee, which has been forwarded to the Historic Preservation Office for inclusion in the record. The case was not heard at the June Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) meeting but may be heard in July — or the applicant may modify the proposal.
One of the phrases often encountered in historic preservation work is “character-defining feature.” Perhaps it is a fancy way of saying “description” but it also conveys the sense that some descriptive elements are more important than others. In a historic district, it refers to the features and aspects of a building (or the district as a whole) that contribute to its historic quality. Character-defining features are the ones that should receive careful attention when an alteration to a historic building is proposed and evaluated or when new construction is contemplated in a historic district.
The height of a building — whether expressed in number of stories or number of feet — is an obvious character-defining feature. It matters a great deal if a building is one story or three stories tall; it is equally important if the one story is 15 feet high, such as a one-story retail establishments, for example, or over 30 feet high, such as Eastern Market.
How that height is terminated is also a character-defining feature. Our early buildings were topped with pitched roofs, sometimes enhanced by dormers. Think of the roof of Friendship House or of the Sparatt House at 421-1/2 Sixth Street, SE, an 1802 house where the roof form is as integral to the image of the building as is the height of the walls. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the flat roofs of the Italianate-style houses were becoming popular. Since the roof couldn’t be seen from the street, the cornice became more visible and important in defining a building. The cornice could be (and often was) a very elaborate one constructed of wood, metal, or brick. Projections, carved elements, layers of trim forming a variety of patterns, terra cotta and pressed brick decorations — all helped to put a distinctive element at the top of a building. A later roof style was the mansard — both in its original form, such as that on the Shakespeare Theater Building at 516 Eighth Street, SE — or the less dramatic modified “mansard” roofs on the twentieth-century porch-front houses.
Historic districts also have their character-defining features relating to heights and roofs. One of Capitol Hill’s signature features is the almost kaleidoscopic variety of building styles, heights, materials and massing displayed on its rows of buildings. With contributing structures built over a period of 150 years, most of them during decades when there were few building codes and no zoning regulations, Capitol Hill’s structures were built by owners who seemingly had few notions about building a house or store that was similar to the neighboring buildings. Tall, high-style Victorian-era buildings were built next to the simplest brick or frame buildings of an earlier time. The resulting silhouette of a row of buildings has often been referred to as a “saw-tooth,” to denote that jagged nature of a street’s roofline. Unlike most contemporary row-house developments that might attempt to vary building heights or styles but do so in a regular or rather timid fashion, Capitol Hill’s streets are often lined with houses that show little reference for the style of façade or height of the building next to it. The result is that often there are dramatic drops in building heights and shifts in building styles. This pattern is so well-established that Amy Weinstein, FAIA, the architect who designed the new row house community that replaced the former Ellen Wilson Dwellings at Sixth and I Streets, SE, deliberately included buildings of very different heights, sometimes even exaggerating the boldness of the cornice to produce not only the saw-tooth aspect of the roofline silhouette but the dramatic height-drops as well. The saw-tooth pattern was developed by the historic builders of Capitol Hill, and it has become a character-defining feature of the historic district.
CHRS Board Resolution Passed by Unanimous Vote on June 17, 2008