Proposal to landmark Friendship Heights substation faces ANC objection

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The substation at 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW is seen with temporary artwork on its bricked-over windows. (photo by Kent Boese)

A request to designate Pepco’s Friendship Heights substation as a historic landmark is facing opposition from the local advisory neighborhood commission, which says the designation is unnecessary and would endanger ongoing renovations.

The Tenleytown Historical Society and the Art Deco Society of Washington jointly argue that the 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW building, constructed in 1940, has architectural and historical significance. Designed in the art moderne style, the building is constructed of red brick “laid in American bond fashion,” the application states. Its Wisconsin Avenue fronting is decorated with limestone panels, while the base of the building and entrance door are trimmed in black glazed ceramic tiles.

The substation was erected as part of an expansion of the District’s electrical capacity just before World War II. During this period, Pepco designed its substations to blend in with the neighborhood, often resembling houses or storefronts — as is the case for the Friendship Heights substation, though its windows have since been bricked over.

The substation was designed to resemble a storefront when it opened in 1940. (photo by Kent Boese)

The city’s Historic Preservation Office recommends that the Historic Preservation Review Board grant the landmark status. The agency’s report states that the substation has maintained a high level of architectural integrity and that the covered windows could be easily restored. The board will consider the case on Thursday.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown) opposed the application at its Nov. 9 meeting, calling the substation a longtime blight on Wisconsin Avenue. Several community leaders have long advocated for redevelopment of the one-story substation building, which is located in a busy corridor near a Metro station.

“There’s also a sense that the neighborhood should have a chance to move beyond this structure, at some point in the future, and not have to have a reminder forever of the 45 years that it was neglected,” ANC 3E chair Jon Bender told residents. “We’ve been asking for this for some time.”

ANC 3E’s resolution calls the landmark application “fatally weak.”

“As a community we can envision a much better future, one without reminders of the squat windowless eyesore that plagued us for decades,” the resolution states.

There’s also a more pressing downside to the landmark designation, Pepco’s Linda Greenan said at last week’s ANC 3E meeting. Historic protections would complicate ongoing efforts to upgrade the substation and increase its electrical distribution capacity. To accommodate the overhaul, Pepco has already shifted power equipment to a property it purchased next door and has begun interior demolition of the substation.

Some Friendship Heights residents hope the substation — shown here from the rear — will eventually be replaced with new development. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2017)

This year, Pepco began demolishing the interior of the original substation, with plans to restore the existing substation’s function, construct a green wall and landscape the front of the property. Pepco expects to finish up in mid-2018 — provided the property is not landmarked.

“It literally would stop the project,” Greenan said. “We were willing to do pretty much whatever Tenleytown and other community stakeholders wanted.”

The Tenleytown Historical Society declined to comment before Thursday’s hearing, while the Art Deco Society of Washington didn’t return calls before The Current’s Tuesday deadline.

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh said in an interview she is dismayed by the possible effects of a landmark designation.

“It winds up holding things up. As a consequence of this, they hold up modernizing and making a better substation … for everybody,” Cheh told The Current. “It strikes me as most peculiar.”

Resident Steve Strauss, who said he is a longtime member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, also opposed the designation at ANC 3E’s meeting.

“I really don’t think this property is appropriate for landmarking. It’s been too altered; it’s too run down,” Strauss told residents. “I don’t think we should lock in the notion that we want to keep that there forever, in this important area.”