Letter to the Editor: We support the city’s decision to protect unpainted brick in Old Town

Letter to the Editor: We support the city’s decision to protect unpainted brick in Old Town
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)

To the editor:

We write in response to the letter published in the Alexandria Times on Dec. 7 from Amy and Paul Reed, “Changes needed to BAR rules and regulations,” concerning the denial of an after-the-fact Certificate of Appropriateness to paint the unpainted brick front façade of their residence at 402 S. Pitt St. The Reeds assert that they were unaware of the painting restrictions of certain properties in the Old and Historic District, and that those restrictions should not be applied to their residence.

The City of Alexandria established both the O&HD and the Board of Architectural Review to protect the structures and streetscapes which make up the authentic fabric of historic Old Town. Old Town’s physical identity and experience are what set Alexandria apart from any other community in the region. As knowledge and understanding of the significance of historic structures have evolved, the district and legislation has evolved to protect properties and materials from all periods of Alexandria’s history, including those built in the early 20th century.

In fact, all properties dating from 1749 to 1934 are considered to be a contributing resource in the district and are thus protected in accord with the guidelines promulgated by the city.

All property owners subject to the guidelines and restrictions of the O&HD are reminded that they — and those before and after them — are responsible for the conservation of Old Town as we know it.

In view of the above, there are several points we wish to make concerning the statements of Mr. and Mrs. Reed in their letter to the Times.

First, the Reeds state that their residence is not “a historic landmark.” In fact, the Reed residence is in the Alexandria National Historic Landmark District, less than two blocks from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and within a block or less of numerous 18th and 19th century buildings. All properties within the Landmark District built before 1934 are considered important historic resources. As the staff report stressed, “The (Reed) building has acquired significance in its own right as a 90-year-old building representing the evolution of Alexandria building over time.” (BAR Case #2017-00287 Staff report, Page 6. Hereinafter Staff Report)
The Reed residence, like other buildings in the Old & Historic District, is subject to a set of rules and regulations controlling what can be done, or not done, on such properties. It is only when those rules and regulations are put in place and are enforced that the preservation of Old Town Alexandria can be maintained. The BAR determined that the painting of the façade of the residence was in violation of the Alexandria Zoning ordinance concerning facades, enacted in 1992, which controls the painting of brick and masonry.

The Reeds state they were unaware of the fact that painting of the front of 402 S. Pitt Street required BAR approval. This seems disingenuous at best. Real estate records of the City of Alexandria show that, prior to their purchase of the S. Pitt Street residence, the Reeds resided on the 200 block of North Lee Street for more than seven years. It strains credibility that someone could live in Old Town for more than seven years and not know that the city — through the BAR and historic preservation staff — has rules and regulations concerning what is, and what is not, permitted when an owner undertakes renovation of any property in Old Town. In addition, a cursory look at the records of the 402 S. Pitt St. residence shows that a request to paint the front of this property was denied to the previous owners in 2012 on a 6-1 vote by the BAR.

The Reeds also did not comply with city directives after the painting began and they were notified of the violation. As the staff report points out — though it is not mentioned in the Reed letter to the Times — a resident contacted the city about the painting of the front of the property while the work was underway.
A city zoning inspector went to the residence and issued a Stop Work Order as both the property owners and the contractor were in violation of the ordinance prohibiting such façade painting. The owners of the residence indicated their willingness to abide by the city directive. Despite those assurances, and in violation of the ‘Stop Work’ order, the painting was completed.

The Reeds further assert that the paint wrongly applied to the façade of 402 S. Pitt Street property cannot be easily removed and therefore they should not be required to do so.

The property owners are again being disingenuous in arguing that they should be spared the ordeal of removing the paint that they themselves applied in violation of the zoning ordinance. To complain that removal of the paint will be difficult fails to take into account that the owners themselves created the situation they now complain of.

It is also ironic that the owners of 402 S. Pitt Street cite historical and preservation standards of the Secretary of Interior, arguing that those standards do not recommend the removal of paint from painted masonry.

What the owners again fail to point out is that “nationally-accepted preservation thought from the National Park Service also strongly discourages the painting or coating to historically unpainted or uncoated masonry buildings to create a new appearance” in the first place. (Staff report, Page 8, citing “The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Buildings”). The property owners thus note the standards they wish to see enforced, but ignore those standards that bolster the city’s prohibition on painting a brick structure in the first place.

A guiding principle of any historic district is that owners of historic properties are not only owners, they are stewards of those properties — to ensure that the entire fabric of the Old & Historic District is maintained. The district protects the imposing and the modest, reflecting a range of styles, eras, economic fortune and prominence.

Rules and regulations that everyone must follow benefit all, and certainly benefit future generations. To ignore those rules and insist on an inappropriate exception of such enforcement means that those who comply with such rules are disadvantaged.

This should not be permitted.

In summary, we believe that the staff, the BAR and subsequently city council acted and voted appropriately in this matter, and their actions in upholding the integrity of the historic standards are to be commended.

Nonetheless, we agree there is merit to a re-examination of the means and methods by which property owners in the Old & Historic District have been notified of the rules and regulations of the city in circumstances such as this. While the owners of 402 S. Pitt St. have lived here for almost 8 years, other newcomers to Old Town may be at a greater disadvantage if by mischance they did not learn of certain regulations until well down the path of renovation and construction.

The Old Town Civic Association is happy to work with staff and other historic preservation groups to ensure that all who choose to live here understand what it means to be both a homeowner at the present and a steward for the future.

-Elizabeth McCall, President, Old Town Civic Association
-Yvonne Weight Callahan, Past President, Old Town Civic Association