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History battles progress, progress wins

(Published August 9, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Historic preservationists lost a battle recently when four historic buildings on H Street NE were demolished, having acted too late in filing the paperwork that could have spared them.

The 125-year-old building on the southwest corner of H and 8th streets NE was known as the Coco Club and was easily recognized by the black-and-white mural painted on the side depicting important African-American historical figures. That building, which originally was known as Beuchertís Saloon, and the three adjacent buildings, had been vacant for years.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Janet Schmidt filed an application with the Historic Preservation Review Board July 30 to designate the site a landmark, but apparently demolition permits had been granted just hours earlier to the H Street Community Development Corp., which owns the site.

Demolition at the site began Aug. 2 but was halted the next day when complaints prompted the city government to review the permits. They apparently found the permits in order and the demolition was completed Aug. 4.

Had the application for historic designation been filed before the demolition permits were issued, the CDC would not have been able to do any construction or demolition on the building until the application was processed and a ruling was made.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose charged that the CDC and its president, William Barrow, had no interest in saving the historic buildings.

"Bill Barrow clearly found out that a group of people was trying to save it and he filed for demolition permits before they could do it," Ambrose said. "Itís the fastest Iíve seen Bill Barrow move in all the years Iíve known him."

Anwar Saleem, president of the H Street Merchants and Professionals Association and a member of the H Street CDC board of directors, said the buildings had been vacant so long that they were an eyesore on the block. He said the preservationists only became interested in the site when they found out the CDC was planning to develop the site.

"They had every opportunity to file their application," Saleem said. "They chose not to do it until the last minute."

Ambrose said she hopes this incident will serve as a lesson to other communities in the District.

"If they have buildings that they think are worthy of landmark status, they have to get out there and do the work now," Ambrose said.

Saleem said the CDC is actively looking for a developer and tenants to occupy the site.

"Weíre going to put a better (building) up," Saleem said. "Weíre going to create a better landmark."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator