Letter to the Editor: Changes needed to BAR rules and regulations

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Amy and Paul Reed's house at 402 S. Pitt St. before (left) and after (right) they painted the previously unpainted masonry. (Photo Credit: BAR Staff Report)
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To the editor:

As the homeowners of 402 S. Pitt St., when we first read the article about our home in the Nov. 23 print version of the Alexandria Times, we thought perhaps we had awoken from a
bad dream. That feeling, of course, lasted but for a few seconds. Aside from getting the outcome incorrect, the article did a fine job of summarizing aspects of the city council hearing, and we would like to provide the rest of the details of our saga with the city and make the case for change.

Our home is not a historic Alexandria landmark. When we purchased our home, we were not aware that painting the front required Board of Architectural Review approval. Keep in mind the front of our home was the only portion that was not previously painted and the adjacent houses as well as surrounding houses that were built at the same time and of the same architecture as our home are all painted.

City staff told city council at the hearing that an insert that is mailed to home owners in March with tax assessments provides sufficient notice to homeowners
that they live in a historic district subject to a whole host of rules and restrictions.
We were not the owners of our home in March and therefore did not receive such notification. In addition, the Commonwealth of Virginia does not require historical preservation rules to be disclosed on the sale of a house. Finally, city staff stated they send out a welcome package to home buyers in the Old & Historic District within 90 days of a house purchase and in the package it informs home purchasers of the requirement to seek approval for all exterior changes, including BAR approval to paint previously unpainted brick.

City staff advised city council that they are behind in mailing the welcome package and one had not been sent to us.

City staff analogized the brick on the front of our house to “tan” or “beige” brick around Old Town and compared our home to iconic tan smooth brick buildings in Old Town, such as
the Burke & Herbert Bank and the art deco Capitol Theater. It should be noted that the city staff report for our Sept. 6 BAR hearing describes our front brick as yellow textured brick. As we made clear in our submission to city council in support of our appeal, the brick on our home is called gold rug face, was likely made in California in the early 20th Century and was part of a fad that did not last long.

The brick is not historic in nature at all and is not of high quality as city staff erroneously contends. Further evidence of this is that the homes surrounding us — which were all built at the same time and presumably using the same gold brick — have all been painted and our neighbors wrote letters of support and testified on our behalf to city council.

City staff advised the council that because our home has not been painted it makes our gold brick “historically significant” by virtue of the mere fact that the developer decided to use it instead of iconic Old Town red brick. We can’t imagine the BAR would ever approve the use of this gold rug brick in a new build or remodel today as it is not a material consistent with the character of the Old & Historic District.

City staff also told council that the paint on the front of our home could be “easily” removed. This is simply not the case. Based on our FOIA request, the city staff received an email from a masonry contractor which stated it was “feasible” to remove the paint.
The email did not state whether all the paint could be removed or how much damage would be done to the mortar, or our windows, porch and original roof if the paint were removed. We do not believe that all the paint can be removed from the textured brick.

When asked by members of city council, city staff stated that no damage would occur to our home or brick or to our neighbors’ houses if the paint were to be removed. On top of having no basis to make this statement, city staff were aware of our submission to city council in support of our appeal that provided evidence from another contractor — hired by us to remove a small patch of paint to see if it is feasible — that there will be extensive damage to our brick, mortar, windows, vegetation, porch and original roof as well as to our neighbors’ homes and the environment if the paint were to be removed from our home. In fact, the brick will never be restored to its original state and the unpainted facade will remain an anomaly to the neighborhood.

It should be noted that in previous cases the BAR has indicated that painting brick is a permanent alteration. In fact, historical preservation and standards that are issued by the Secretary of the Interior do not recommend the removal of paint from painted masonry due to the destructive nature of the chemicals and high pressured water cleaning that are required to be used in removing the paint. City staff did not discuss or acknowledge any of
this with city council, even though they are intimately familiar with these standards. The only standard they want to apply is that brick should not be painted and completely disregard the other standard against paint removal.

We believe that change needs to happen. It can start by requiring Old & Historic and Parker-Gray Districts’ historic preservation rules to be disclosed to buyers when contracting to purchase a home. In addition, if it is the BAR’s position that previously unpainted masonry should never be painted and they are never going to approve it, then a law should be passed making it an absolute prohibition which specifically is
disclosed to home buyers.

Had we known about the regulation regarding unpainted masonry and the BAR’s and City Council policy prohibiting painting, we would not have purchased our home.

– Amy and Paul Reed, Alexandria

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