What It's All About

Preservation in Washington, D.C., takes a neighborhood to the next level.

By Dwight Young

Barracks Row

Credit: Bill McLeod, Executive Director of Barracks Row Main Street, Inc.

On a recent Sunday afternoon I joined throngs of other pilgrims for the annual Capitol Hill house-and-garden tour. As always, I enjoyed trooping through some interesting living spaces?the condos in a former school were especially nice?while offering my unsolicited appraisal of other people's taste (Macram?!? I thought the last one of those died 30 years ago!) and family photos (Hmmm, he'd better lay off the tiramisu if he wants to wear that bathing suit again). But this year's tour offered me something unexpected: At one point I found myself in the middle of a life-size diorama of What Preservation Is All About.

It happened on Eighth Street SE, the spine of the neighborhood's historic commercial district. For the past few years, this strip (now known as Barracks Row) has been the focus of a highly successful revitalization initiative, and as a result it now displays all the signs of vigorous rebirth: spiffed-up facades, new street lights and sidewalks, people carrying shopping bags or chatting over drinks at outdoor tables. It looked so attractive and prosperous?like a poster for a "preservation is good for the pocketbook" campaign?that it was easy to see why the effort recently won a Great American Main Street Award.

The streets around Barracks Row offered reminders of preservation's bedrock. Important individual landmarks?including the nation's oldest continuously manned U.S. Marines post and the city's oldest Episcopal church building?were surrounded by blocks of houses where people were tending their flowerbeds or touching up the paint on their porches. It was a theater-in-the-round presentation on what makes a livable neighborhood. I could almost hear Mister Rogers singing?or was it the Marine Band rehearsing, or the music of property values rising?

There was even a hint of controversy. In the middle of Barracks Row stood a vacant building that formerly housed a storefront church. Recently a local businessman wanted to open a restaurant there, but he ran into opposition from some residents, who feared his restaurant would really be a nightclub, would be too big for the neighborhood, would cause traffic and parking problems, etc. He withdrew his proposal. While I was trying to decide which side had been right, I studied some of the new kids on the block?a martini bar here, an art gallery there?and wondered what reception they had received.

Treasured landmarks, fixed-up houses, adaptive use, commercial revitalization, a bit of conflict?all in a few blocks of a single neighborhood. As I glanced around at this microcosm of preservation, it looked very good, indeed.

Something else good was around the corner.

The blocks to the west of Barracks Row used to be the site of a public housing project called the Ellen Wilson Houses. When it was new, in the 1940s and '50s, the complex was a nice place to live, but it eventually deteriorated into a crime-ridden enclave of shabby buildings adrift in a sea of weeds and trash. By the mid-1990s, conditions had gotten so bad that the city tore the whole thing down.

What went up in its place is a mixed-income development (more than half of the residents earn no more than 50 percent of the area's median income) that has all the earmarks of a real neighborhood. The buildings were designed to look like traditional Washington row houses. That sort of thing can wind up looking like a stage set, but architect Amy Weinstein pulled it off well here. Because the houses sit on real streets instead of in vast superblocks, and because those streets tie into the surrounding grid, you enter the project without crossing the usual abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here boundary. The place looks as if people actually live in it instead of being confined there.

Preservationists don't always give themselves credit for what they have accomplished. If they bring new economic vigor and livability to older commercial and residential areas and in the process help architects, planners, and housing officials understand how a real neighborhood looks and feels and works?they deserve kudos.

Judging by what I saw on Eighth Street SE, preservationists have a lot to be proud of.