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Mendelson charges neglect of ‘defaced’ historic housing

(Published March 26, 2001)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Special to The Common Denominator

D.C. officials ignored historic preservation laws and let the city’s oldest and most historic public housing complex be "defaced" during recent work to install cable TV lines, a city councilman has charged.

In a March 14 letter to D.C. Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Kelly, Councilman Phil Mendelson said the agency "has not followed the proper review processes for a landmark building, and is allowing the facades of these structures to be defaced by inappropriate construction work."

"This is a case of neglect and insensitivity," said Mendelson, D-At Large.

Langston Terrace Dwellings, located at 21st Street and Benning Road NE, was the District’s first public housing complex and the second to be built in the United States. Opened in 1938, the project was designed by Hilyard Robinson, an internationally known African-American architect and Howard University professor.

Langston Terrace is registered as both a D.C. and national historic landmark.

"Langston was built at a time when the architectural qualities of public housing were valued as important to the quality of life," said Mendelson. "It ought to be respected for that."

According to Janice McCree, head of the residents’ council at Langston Terrace, District Cablevision workers arrived at Langston Terrace in early February and attached unsightly aluminum-housed cable lines and cable boxes to the street-facing fronts of four apartment buildings. They also drilled through the buildings’ original brick to install the lines, she said.

Generally, cable lines are run through a building’s interior to minimize their visual impact.

"It looks terrible," said McCree. "But the housing authority thinks that if it’s public housing, it’s just poor people. So who cares?"

A landmark building’s appearance and structure can be altered only after review by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, followed by the issuance of a permit, Mendelson said. He said neither a review nor a permit was obtained in this case.

Housing authority spokesman Arthur Jones would not comment directly on Mendelson’s charges. He said housing director Kelly would reply to Mendelson by letter next week.

But he added, "Of course we know that (Langston Terrace) is a historic building." He said starting the work had been "a mistake" that had been noticed by a senior housing authority official who was driving by the site. "He saw what was happening and stopped it," Jones said. He declined to name the official.

McCree agreed that work is now suspended, but she said that she, not a housing authority official, stopped it.

"I walked by and saw them drilling into the building. I told them they’d better stop or they’d have a lawsuit on their hands, and they stopped," she said.

McCree also claimed the on-site manager, Donald Wilson, approved the work. "Those contractors checked in with him every day," she said.

District Cablevision subcontractor Alvin George said McCree stopped the work. "She said she’d call the police and have us put off the property," he said.

George said Wilson inspected the installation of the cables several times. "He said we were doing a good job," he said. George said he believed Wilson wanted the cables installed on the buildings’ exteriors to discourage possible vandalism to the lines.

"(Wilson) never said a word" about Langston’s historic status, George said.

"I’ve worked on historical buildings before," he said. "They ask you to drill through the mortar joints, not the brick. We could have done that."

Mendelson’s letter also charged that the housing authority has been allowing Langston Terrace to deteriorate generally, through "inadequate maintenance, insensitive repairs, and neglect."

That charge was repeated by Jerry Maronek, administrator of the D.C. Preservation League, a private organization making an effort to restore and maintain Langston Terrace.

"Many sidewalks are so badly buckled that elderly and disabled residents can barely get into and out of their homes," Maronek said. He also pointed to the complex’s many broken windows and to more serious problems like a broken boiler that forced an evacuation of several apartments in January due to carbon monoxide fumes. The electrical system, Maronek said, has not been upgraded since the complex was built during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

Still, he said, Langston Terrace retains a sense of community. He noted that Robinson carefully arranged the residential buildings around a central courtyard, to help instill a feeling of community.

"And today, most residents still call each other by their first names," he pointed out. "Everybody knows each other. There’s a lot of respect for the place. You see very little grafitti.

"But," he added, "it’s difficult to keep pride in residency without help from the city."

Housing authority spokesman Jones noted that authority Director Kelly "as a registered architect himself, is very sensitive to the architectural integrity of Langston Terrace."

He said that city officials are now consulting with McCree and other residents.

"Now, we’re trying to find a way to give people the cable service they want without doing harm to an historical landmark," he said.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator