By Heidi Ford, Alexandria
To the editor:
Next month, city council will consider the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s appeal of the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review’s unanimous denial of its request to demolish the 15-unit scattered-site public housing complex, known as Ramsey Homes. Some are framing this case as historic preservation versus affordable housing, implying it is a zero-sum game. But that is a false dichotomy, as both aims can and should be achieved.
The solution for Ramsey Homes is exactly the route the city took with regard to the old Health Department building at 509 N. Saint Asaph St. In 2012 when the city sought to sell off unneeded property, it asked the BAR governing the Old and Historic District to examine the property. It concluded that the building, which is composed of a central core that was built between 1944 and 1947 with two additions constructed in the 1970s, to be architecturally and
historically significant, and recommended preservation.
A June 2012 memo from the city manager to city council argues that the building should be preserved and adaptively reused. Among the reasons staff cite for preserving the building are that it remained remarkably intact, exemplified the city’s institutional architecture program from the post-war period, represented the work of a well-known regional architecture firm, and that the building was “in scale with the surrounding historic and more recent townhouses
buildings.” Today, the building’s exterior walls remain but the interior has been completely gutted so that the building can be reconfigured into nine luxury townhomes.
Like the old Health Department building, Ramsey Homes also were case they were built in the 1940s, but in this case they were built as housing for black defense workers. As such, the Ramsey Homes are significant as an important example of the federal government’s effort to provide housing African-American war workers, as well as helping us to understand the role African-Americans and Alexandria played in the war effort. The city cited Ramsey Homes as
contributing resources in the Uptown/Parker-Gray Historic District listing in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Like the old Health Department building, Ramsey Homes were designed by a notable local architect, Delos H. Smith. Smith, a member of the original Alexandria BAR, was a noted ecclesiastical architect whose work included two annex buildings at St. Paul’s Church at 228 S. Pitt St., as well as the U.S. Capitol Building Prayer Room. Smith specialized in the Colonial Revival and Federal Revival styles, making the design of Ramsey Homes in the International style all the more interesting and unique.
Like the old Health Department building, city staff also emphasize among the reasons for preservation that Ramsey Homes help to “maintain the scale and character of this area of the district which is comprised of predominantly two-story buildings.”
Like the old Health Department building, city councilors should opt for preservation and adaptive reuse of Ramsey Homes. Just as was done with the Health Department building, the exterior features of Ramsey Homes, its scale, green space and mature trees and character can be retained, while the interior is completely gutted and remodeled to provide quality affordable housing.