Historical Landmark?

October 19, 2017

Just south of the Friendship Heights commercial district is a one-story Pepco substation that looks mostly like a gray box and which one Washingtonian article called “an eyesore.” The Tenleytown Historical Society and Art Deco Society of Washington recently applied to designate it as a landmark. Should it be?

The substation, on Wisconsin Avenue near Harrison Street, was built in 1940 and is a one-story, L-shaped brick building with limestone on the front. As the nomination explains, following community opposition to building power substations in Columbia Heights, Pepco designed its stations to harmonize with the surrounding architecture. Here, that meant making it look like a one-story storefront similar to others nearby.

The building used to have plate glass windows, the nomination says, but they were later filled in with gray brick. Today, there are a pair of great murals of JFK covering the blank faux-storefronts. However, those murals are temporary; they were added in 2016 while Pepco upgrades the substation.

Local Advisory Neighborhood Commission chair Jonathan Bender told Washingtonian last year he hopes Pepco will restore the glass and perhaps feature local artists’ work in the display areas. As a new and temporary feature, this isn’t part of the historic nomination and not relevant to designating the building.

The substation lies immediately next to the WMATA Western Bus Garage (which includes the south entrance to the Friendship Heights Metro). Preservationists tried to landmark that, too in 2012, but there has never been a hearing on the application. Just behind the substation is a cluster of apartment buildings which the Tenleytown Historical Society is also trying to landmark; Eric Fidler argued that nomination isn’t merited.

When is preservation about history versus stopping growth?

Designating historic landmarks is a valuable piece of the land use policy landscape. There are true treasures among Washington’s buildings, as well as several books devoted to the lost masterpieces.

However, there must be a balance. Washington should preserve enough of the best and most significant buildings to maintain architectural distinction and a connection to the past, but also needs to meet the needs of a growing city with new housing, jobs, schools, and more.

People join preservation organizations for different reasons. Some truly love old and historic buildings, enjoy learning about the story of each one, telling it, and preserving it. Some love the architectural distinction in many of the past’s most notable buildings, and lament the cases where true gems have been lost. Other people simply are alarmed that someone might build something in their neighborhood and want to stop change. They see the preservation law as one powerful weapon against growth.

WMATA will need to overhaul its garage in the not too distant future. When it does, building a mixed-use structure with retail, offices, or housing as well as a new garage could be a great way to better use the land on this block and generate money for the garage rebuild. If WMATA does apply to redevelop or modify the garage, preservation officials will have to take action one way or another on the 2012 application.

As for this building, Pepco doesn’t like to do mixed-use projects and is just renovating the substation now, so it is not likely going anywhere anytime soon. But one day, who knows?


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