Palisades ANC opposes group’s application to landmark 1940 home

A raze application for this Chain Bridge Road home is on hold pending a decision on the landmarking. (photo by D.P. Sefton)

The DC Preservation League thinks the house at 3125 Chain Bridge Road NW is a landmark of modernist architecture and belongs on the National Register of Historic Places. Alma Gates doesn’t buy it.

“This house is not [architecturally] influential or important,” said Gates, a member of the local advisory neighborhood commission, ANC 3D. “It is not associated with people who are significant to our past.”

Gates and her colleagues heard from the DC Preservation League at ANC 3D’s meeting last Wednesday, but they voted unanimously to oppose the landmark application. The case will go before the Historic Preservation Review Board on Dec. 21. (ANC 3D includes Foxhall, the Palisades, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights.)

The residence on Chain Bridge Road, referred to as the Raymond and Olive Clapper House in the landmark application, was built in 1940. The architect was Alfred Kastner, best known as a designer of public housing.

David Jameson — an architect representing the property’s current owners, Luis Riesgo and Teresa Modrono — also spoke out against its landmark status.

“This is not a mature work of architecture,” said Jameson. “It does not rise to the level of being a landmark. You drive by and you’re potentially intrigued. But you look more closely and it disappoints.”

The new owners purchased the property for $3.5 million in September, shortly after the seller, Carla Hills, filed for a raze permit on their behalf. The DC Preservation League filed its landmark application on Oct. 19, halting any raze permit until the preservation board can rule on the matter. Jameson said that since then, his clients have spent $30,000 to oppose landmark designation.

Jacqueline Drayer of the DC Preservation League presented a statement explaining her group’s nomination.

“The Clapper House is eligible for listing because it embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, style and method of construction,” Drayer said. “The Clapper House is among the earliest, and may indeed be the first, modernist house in the District of Columbia. For years this pioneering work of architecture served as a conspicuous emblem of the modernist movement. It is a superb example of an early modernist house in its own right.”

Drayer also said the house is important for its association with figures notable in the development of the nation and the city. “Raymond Clapper, who commissioned the house with his wife Olive, was a national opinion leader and pioneering broadcaster in the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II,” she said.

Clapper wrote for The Washington Post, with his daily column distributed to 176 newspapers.

The house was more recently, and for 40 years, the home of Carla Hills, a cabinet secretary under President Gerald Ford and U.S. trade representative in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Hills was known as “the velvet crowbar” for her negotiating style.

Famously, Hills and her husband Roderick both held top government posts in the 1970s — she as secretary of housing and urban development, he as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to Roderick Hills’ 2014 obituary in The Washington Post, “When he was approved for the SEC job in October 1975, Mr. Hills and his wife became a prominent power couple, described by Time magazine as ‘Washington’s most formidably titled husband-wife team ever.’”

But Carla Hills herself challenges the merits of her former home’s landmark nomination.

“The basis for this proposed landmark status strikes me as close to frivolous,” she wrote in a letter to the preservation board. “I was surprised to see the application invoke my professional accomplishments as justification for landmark designation. The National Register for Historic Places actively discourages historic designation based on association with living persons. It surely cannot be reasonable to designate as a landmark every structure in Washington, DC, purchased by a cabinet member, yet this application seems to list nothing more as the basis for its proposed designation.”

Jameson added that Hills was in fact offended by her inclusion in the landmark application. “She said her work is not done,” Jameson said.

Gates and others from the neighborhood toured the house on Nov. 22, and she subsequently wrote an analysis of the landmark application for her colleagues.

“While Kastner may have adopted Modernist Movement principles in general, the Clapper House is not a stellar example of implementation of the principles,” she wrote. “Kastner, while known for his award-winning planning and design efforts related to important and timely housing projects, does not demonstrate mature award-winning familiarity in the design and construction of the Clapper House, primarily because he did not adhere to basic principles of Modernist residential architecture in his choice and the use of construction material.”

Troy Kravitz, another member of ANC 3D, expressed concerns about the landmarking process.

“The practical reality is that once a raze application is filed, groups from outside our community often file a historic designation application on the home,” he wrote in an email to The Current. “As the application for 3125 Chain Bridge Road shows, the case for historic designation may be entirely unconvincing, at best, yet it still entails a $30,000 outlay (or $35,000 in another case that came before us).”

At last week’s meeting, commissioner Michael Sriqui said he hopes the Preservation League does not return to ANC 3D with another landmark application that he regards as without merit. “It’s a big deal to take away homeowners’ rights,” he said.

A spokesperson for the DC Preservation League did not respond to requests for comment.