Historic Homes

Sep 11, 2012

Join Rob Nieweg, Washington field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Washington Post Real Estate editors for an online chat about historic preservation and The Post's Historic Home Contest on Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Hello, thanks for chatting. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts about historic preservation. I am especially interested to learn about upcoming public events to engage local residents and visitors in historic preservation. I know, for example, that the DC Preservation League will convene DC's annual citywide historic preservation conference on Oct. 12th at the Charles Sumner School.

(1) What "real protection" does being named to the National Register of Historic Places confer on a collection of properties such as the stables in Naylor Court and Blagden Alley (accepted in 1990)? How do residents harness this protection? (2) With a height restriction in a city that is only twelve miles wide, increasing living density in the city is refocussing discussions on the increased use of the many named alleys in Washington and their small buildings. How does the concept of a "mews" as a mix of commercial, residential and pedestrian activities enter the conversation of urban planning and historic preservation?

Thanks for your question.  In a nutshell, the National Register of Historic Places is a well-documented list of the historic resources which are worthy of preservation.  It's largely honorific.  On the other hand, under federal law, historic properties listed on the National Register (or eligible for listing) receive a measure of protection through what's called "Section 106 review."  It's a technical process, but one that's worth understanding if an historic place you value may be impacted by a federal undertaking.   Are the properties you mention threatened? 

Mid-century modern architecture seems to have pretty firm roots around the DC region, with a number of neighborhoods that have largely maintained their style and integrity. Whereas the style seems to be one of the most clearly defined and well-known from 20th century modern, it also seems to be a very niche taste in this area, well outside of mainstream demand. Any insight on how the regional preservation community and residential real estate market might value mid-century modern homes in the decades to come?

I'm glad you raised the topic of mid-century modern architecture.  As you may know, there has been alot of positive attention paid to mid-century modern buildings within the preservation movement.  So, it doesn't feel like a "very niche taste" in my world.

On October 4th the DC Preservation League and National Building Museum will host a public event regarding the preservation of mid-20th century architecture.  The event will consider the progress made on preserving mid-century buildings, while upgrading them for current use. 

I'd be interested to know what other chatters may think about public interest in mid-century modern homes. 

Dear Mr. Nieweg, congratulations on this great and much needed initiative. I’m a college History professor in Puerto Rico, as so, very much compromised with the preservation of historic places here in the Island, specially battle sites. There is not much help, information or resources available to accomplish ones goals in these matter. Just a week ago, the Mayor of the capital city of San Juan, the second oldest in the hemisphere, threatened to demolish the first bridge built in the Island. Although the bridge has been reworked ever since the early 1500’s, when it was built; it still stands in the same place an under daily use with a historical background of more than 450 years. A group of concerned citizens, including me, has endured bitter battles with government officials to preserve it, maintain it and everything to it including, what the local Press called “The Color Battle”. An issue made public and physical in our efforts to prevent the hideous practice of elected officials painting public structures with their political party’s colors. We prevailed at a great cost, because of the pressure and intimidations that even threatened to put us under arrest. My question is, how can the Battleground preservation laws and other preservation laws be applied uniformly in Puerto Rico? What resources are available and how to work with them in order that many of the battlefields that still exist in the Island are preserved. It is also of much concern that the general belief of concerned citizens is that the SHPO, is more compromised with partisan politics than preserving historic sites. Your comments and advice is very much appreciated.

This is a fascinating question.  I'd like to know more.  Is the historic bridge you mention also a battlefield? 

My organization often works with local advocates to save  threatened historic places.  I've worked to save a number of battlefields endangered by incompatible new development.  Usually the solution involves finding a workable compromise that protects the historic landscape by moving the proposed new development to another less-sensitive alternative site. 

In my experience, the State Historic Preservation Officer (or "SHPO") can play a very important role in the systematic exploration and evaluation of alternatives. 

In response to the first question, the buildings are not threatened by federal undertakings. They are simply at risk of demolition by developers who mistake or misrepresent carriage houses and stables for garages and tear them down. The value in the properties mentioned is in the collection rather than the strength of the individual small buildings. They are getting "picked of" one at a time.

Understood.  In this sort of situation, National Register listing would help raise awareness of the value of the buildings.  Raise awareness and galvanize support for preservation. 

However, designation pursuant to a local law, like DC's preservation ordinance, would provide legal protection for the historic buildings.  Many such local ordinances have "teeth" and would require that the property owner must secure advance approval from an expert commission before demolishing a historic building. 

I grew up in Holmes Run Acres, a mid-century modern Falls Church neighborhood that was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2006 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. People interested in doing this for their own neighborhoods should check out the neighborhood website http://www.holmesrunacres.com/. Ironically, I grew up longing to live in a rambling Victorian home with gingerbread decoration, a porch with wicker furniture, and a big attic. :)

Holmes Run Acres is a great neighborhood. 


I was born in Fairlington, grew up in Arlington Forest, and now live in Dominion Hills -- all National Register districts in Arlington. 

People who are interested in listing their neighborhoods on the Register should consider contacting the relevant State Historic Preservation Office.  There's good information online as well.

Generally speaking, about how much additional cost does asbestos remediation add to the cost of revitalizing a historic commercial structure like a downtown department store building or maybe an old multi-story hotel?

This is an important technical question.  Typically, the objective of a preservation-based project would be to conserve the character-defining features of a historic building while rehabilitating the structure for modern use.  That means that care must be taken to plan ahead before beginning the process of removing or encapsulating the asbestos.  I'm not sure, however, that taking care to protect valued features of a building should increase the cost of remediation. 

I wish some millionaire would buy the Surratt Boarding House at 604 H Street NW and turn it into a Civil War themed B&B

Are you talking about the Wok and Roll restaurant? 

What is the lastest news on the situation concerning Woodlawn Platation and Stables. At last glance future lanes of Richmond Highway will be moved west and pass through the stables and pasture. Are these planes accurate? Is the National Trust working with the local community in regards to preserving as much of the property as possible?

Here's the latest.  The Virginia Dept. of Transportation intends to widen Route 1 through historic Woodlawn, which is a property of the National Trust.  There are two options now under consideration by VDOT, widening the road on its current right of way or building a new bypass roadway.  Either option would encroach upon the National Trust's property and adversely impact our longterm efforts to preserve Woodlawn for the public benefit.   Recently the Trust expressed support for the bypass option.  Now it's up to VDOT to finalize the agency's plans.

Last year, after my c.1790 historic home was being inundated by storm water runoff from a county road in Montgomery County, I appealed to Françoise Carrier, President of the MNCPPC to see if her agency could help me get the county to stop flooding my property. Do you know what her suggestion was? I should apply for a permit to have my house torn down! My question is: Why is the Historic Preservation Commission nothing more than window dressing as far as helping to enforce the Historic Preservation ordinance? And by the way, I also approached the National Trust and they were not interested at all in helping to preserve my wonderful old house which is probably older than the White House.

Thanks for your question and thank you, especially, for your good work to preserve your historic home.  This sounds like a difficult and frustrating situation.  I would encourage you not to give up, and to reach out to Preservation Maryland, the statewide nonprofit, and Montgomery Preservation, Inc., the countywide nonprofit advocacy group. Their advice may help to brainstorm a solution that doesn't require your house be torn down!

Answering your question; Yes indeed, the bridge was used to permit passage to the now capital city of the Island back in 1520; although reconstructed several times. In 1797, it was a main battleground where much blood was shed, when the invading British army captured it in their failed efforts to conquer the Island.

Thanks for your additional information about the historic bridge.  I'd recommend that you and your allies should contact the National Trust's Forum Reference Desk via FORUM@nthp.org to share more background information regarding your preservation campaign.  Perhaps we can lend a hand. 

(a) Thank you for expanding on the issue of legal protection of threatened historic properties. It's also good that the DC Historic Preservation Office has a lawyer dedicated to issues such as this. (b) Can you please share your thoughts about the second part of my original question that relates to the concept of "mews"?

As for the place of the historic mews in a changing city, I'd offer two thoughts.  First, these special places contribute to the unique historic character of DC.  Wouldn't be the same place without them.  Second, even with the push for more density, the District's mews provide special opportunities for small-scale housing units.  Either way, the local community shouldn't lose its character without a good deal of careful planning (or, if necessary, a fight). 

Thanks everyone for your good questions. And, thanks to The Washington Post for continuing coverage of preservation issues. Historic preservation has come a long way in recent years, and now has important roles to play in the social, educational, and economic lives of our community. I urge you to support your local, state, and national historic preservation organizations.

In This Chat
Rob Nieweg
Rob Nieweg is the Field Director & Attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Washington Field Office, which works to save historic resources in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He has worked as a preservation advocate since 1989, when he directed Landmark West, a citizens group working to preserve Manhattan's Upper West Side. Since joining the staff of the National Trust in 1995, Rob has worked to preserve historic places and strengthen the grass-roots preservation movement in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia - his home state. Rob Nieweg holds a BA in history from Vassar College and an MS in historic preservation from Columbia University. He is a graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School and a member of the New York State Bar.
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