We live in a historic city — there’s no question about that. The nation’s capital features not only the great civic buildings and gleaming monuments around the National Mall, but also the evidence of more than 200 years of development progress. Farms became row houses and businesses; woodlands became shopping centers; and architects introduced a wide variety of styles that came to define locations and eras.
But the District continues to grow. Our historic strength as the center of American government is increasingly augmented by other industries, which steadily attract new residents to the city. Today’s D.C. reflects the many periods it’s passed through, including the current day.
We would hate to see the District’s varied decades swept away and replaced with block after block of glassy modernity. But at the same time, we’ve seen overprotective preservationists sometimes threaten to stifle the District’s population growth and architectural diversity. We’re speaking of attempts to freeze in time even the most anonymous or downright undesirable buildings.
Two recent examples stand out. One is Georgetown’s West Heating Plant, a vacant industrial structure that sits jarringly apart from its high-end residential surroundings and that blocks off access to Rock Creek’s junction with the C&O Canal. Another is a Pepco substation in Friendship Heights, a squat windowless rectangle that helps deaden a block that could host transit-oriented development and neighborhood-serving retail.
In both places, preservation groups have launched bids to declare the properties historic landmarks. Their architecture is emblematic of their eras, and they served valuable support functions as the District grew.
But does that mean that the buildings should stand forever as a monument to the 1940s? Should widely supported plans to convert the West Heating Plant into condos be shelved in favor of a 110-foot-tall testament to the federal office buildings it once heated, with no feasible reuse in sight? Should the substation at 5210 Wisconsin Ave. NW always represent the era in which it was constructed merely because it was, in fact, constructed at that time?
In a recent article on the substation, the Greater Greater Washington blog noted that today’s criteria for historic landmark status can apply nearly anywhere. “If you squint, basically every building is ‘associated’ with some events,” the blog’s David Alpert wrote. “And does any building not embody characteristics of its method of construction?”
We approve wholeheartedly of protecting exemplary, evocative buildings and communities, but not buildings that simply aren’t notable.
To be clear, we agree that historic preservation isn’t a beauty contest, and we recognize that the District features numerous successful examples of adaptive reuse. But those arguments don’t justify the protection of any and every building. There are ways to honor local history without holding onto every relic of the past — and our growing population demands that we find them.