City council upholds BAR’s decision on historic house painting

City council upholds BAR’s decision on historic house painting
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)

By Missy Schrott |

Correction: The article that appeared in the Times’ Nov. 23 print edition, titled “House painting appeal sets precedent,” incorrectly states city council reversed the Old & Historic Alexandria Board of Architectural Review’s decision and allowed the Reeds to keep their house painted. In reality, Councilor Paul Smedberg put forward two motions to accept the Reeds’ appeal, one of which died for lack of a second, and one of which was denied by a 5-2 vote, while Councilor Tim Lovain’s motion to deny the appeal and reaffirm BAR’s decision passed by a vote of 5-2. The Reeds are required to remove the gray paint from their house within six months. The Times regrets and apologizes for the error.

After a lengthy debate at its public hearing on Nov. 18, city council upheld the Old & Historic Alexandria District Board of Architectural Review’s decision to require residents to remove gray paint from their historic brick house located in Old Town’s Southeast Quadrant at 402 S. Pitt St.

City council voted 5-2 to reaffirm BAR’s September decision and deny homeowners Amy and Paul Reed’s appeal. Councilor Paul Smedberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson cast the opposing votes.

The homeowners said their motive was to match the houses around them, not desecrate a historic Alexandria landmark. During the painting, they received a notice from BAR stating they were required to request permission before they altered the historic brick. The couple had two choices: they could resolve the issue administratively by working with staff and removing the paint, or they could apply for an after-the-fact certificate of appropriateness.

The Reeds chose the latter option and sought after-the-fact BAR approval, which was denied Sept. 6. The couple contended the ruling was unfair and appealed BAR’s decision to city council. Council’s 5-2 vote reaffirmed BAR’s decision and requires the removal of the paint within six months.

During discussion, council weighed questions of historical preservation, aesthetics and setting a precedent for future cases.

BAR and the Old Town Civic Association advocated that council support BAR’s denial. They said at the time the home was built in 1928, beige brick was more expensive than Old Town’s defining red brick. Since tan brick was used less frequently around the city and is therefore a rarity in the historic district, they said what does remain should be preserved.

The Reeds presented their argument along with an apology.

“We are sorry that we painted the brick,” Amy Reed said at the meeting. “We did not know that we were required to get a certificate of appropriateness.”

The Reeds’ house falls in a line of three townhomes in the 400 block of South Pitt Street. The adjoining houses, along with houses around the corner on Wolfe Street, have all been painted. Paul Reed said they assumed they were on safe ground because the other houses had already been painted.

“We made that assumption, and we are sorry that we had made that assumption,” he said. “We understand that lack of knowledge and understanding of the laws is not an excuse, but we wanted you to understand our thinking.”

BAR representatives said that it was established in 1992 that residents must seek approval before painting unpainted masonry. They said there is a flyer informing homeowners of the requirement for a BAR-issued certificate of appropriateness. They also said most of the other houses had been painted before 1992.

Melanie Wieland, a neighbor who lives at 424 Wolfe St. said she, along with several other neighbors, sided with the Reeds and liked the house painted.

Silberberg said she was unable to look past the historicism of the brick.

“From a historic preservation point of view, whether today we feel one way or another, historic preservation is a core value here in our city, and we’re very lucky. As I often say, all of us together are the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria,” she said.

Some councilors were concerned with the precedent that approving a certificate of appropriateness might set: If city council allowed the Reeds to keep their house as it was, would others test the limits? If this were to be approved, would people use it as an example when they requested to alter historic architecture in the future?

Smedberg suggested council approve the Reeds’ appeal and put two motions forward in an attempt to do so, one of which died for lack of a second, another of which was denied by a 5-2 vote.

“If this were the first in a series, I think the precedent issue would be stronger, but … I’m having a hard time. It’s the last house, and I just don’t see how leaving it painted harms things,” he said. “If this were the first case, if this were the first house to do this in this ‘L’ here, it would be a totally different case and discussion.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson also supported the appeal, citing city code that allows the painting of unpainted masonry to be decided on a case-by-case basis. If BAR wanted to preserve certain architecture without exception, it would warrant a code change, he said.

“I’m not of the opinion that it should never be okay to paint unpainted masonry,” he said.

The majority of council disagreed, however, voting 5-2 on a motion made by Councilor Tim Lovain to reaffirm BAR’s decision that requires the Reeds to remove the paint from their house within six months.