A civil fight over an Old Town landmark

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619 S. Lee St. has been owned by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, former Alexandria mayor Edgar Snowden and Thomas Vowell, a prominent Alexandria merchant. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

It’s not often that Alexandria’s various historic preservation organizations band together to oppose a project, but one family’s home improvement request has united the masses.

Last week, the Old and Historic Alexandria Board of Architectural Review approved a request to renovate the historic property at 619 S. Lee St. known as the Vowell-Snowden-Black House. With the approval, owners Lori and Nigel Morris plan to demolish pieces of the house and put on several additions. The project also involves restoring certain historic features that have deteriorated over time.

An illustration of the Morris property as it exists now (left) shows the features to be demolished in yellow and tan. An illustration of the approved renovation design (right) shows the additions in tan. (Rendering: Cunningham Quill Architects)

The property is a designated Virginia landmark, according to the Historic Alexandria Foundation. The original portion of the house was built between 1798 and 1800. It has been owned over the years by Hugo Black, former U.S. Supreme Court justice; Edgar Snowden, former Alexandria mayor and editor of the Alexandria Gazette Packet; and Thomas Vowell, a prominent Alexandria merchant.

Because of the house’s historic status, the renovation project has attracted significant public attention.

Representatives of several local and regional organizations – including HAF, the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, the Old Town Civic Association and Preservation Virginia – have opposed the project in writing and in verbal testimony at its two BAR hearings.

Several have said that the project’s proposed demolitions and additions violate a historic preservation easement.

The original easement on the property between Black and the state was signed on Dec. 26, 1969. An updated version was signed after Black’s death on April 23, 1973.

The updated deed reads: “… no building or structure described herein shall be altered, restored, renovated or extended and no structure described herein constructed except at such place and in such a way that would in opinion of Grantee be in keeping with the historic character of the house, and provided that the prior written approval of Grantee to such action shall have been obtained.”

The view of 619 S. Lee St. from the back yard. The curved wall that abuts the main house from the left and the kitchen addition on the right are two of the pieces the Morrises plan to demolish. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

According to the language of the updated easement, the Morrises can legally build additional structures on the property, so long as what they build is in keeping with the property’s historic character. They are also required to have the written approval of the easement holder, which in the Morris’ case is the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Many of the residents who testified against the project at the BAR hearings argued that the Morris’ design plan was not in keeping with the property’s historic character.

“We commend the present owners for their dedication to the much-needed restoration of the original house,” Danny Smith, co-chair of HARC, said, “but we are very concerned that some of the proposed additions of new structures are not in keeping with the historic character of the property and other important considerations.”

The proposed additions include a two-story addition, trellis and one-story bike workshop on the south end of the house, which fronts eastward on Lee Street, and a two-story addition on the west end of the house toward Fairfax Street.

“The additions are placed to have maximum impacts on Lee and Franklin streets’ frontage and the landmark open space,” HAF board member John Richards said.

Some of those opposed to the project have contended that since the square footage of the additions exceeds the square footage of the demolitions, the project is impeding on open space.

“The open space aspect of this property is in some ways more important to preserve than the house itself, although they are part and parcel of the same ownership,” Robert Montague, a resident who has been involved in several historic preservation organizations, said.

The aerial rendering from the east depicts the additions the Morris family plans to add to their property. The design includes a two-story and one-story addition on the south and a two-story addition on the west. (Rending: Cunningham Quill Architects)

Despite the different groups’ allegations that the project violates the easement on the property, it has been approved at the state level by the easement holder DHR and locally by the BAR.

The Morris’ architect, Lee Quill of Cunningham Quill Architects, said the approvals were evidence that no easement had been broken.

“We would not have multiple sign offs and approvals at this stage, they wouldn’t give that to us, unless we’re meeting the provisions. That’s why we went to them. That’s why we keep in touch,” Quill said.

The Morris family bought the Lee Street property in 2013 and began looking into restoring and renovating it in spring 2017. From the beginning of the project, Quill said they have been meeting with the DHR to ensure they obey the provisions of the easement. They also have had several meetings with the BAR and city leaders, since the BAR has an additional set of regulations.

“The idea is that we have multiple reviews with these groups to make sure we’re meeting the intention and the provision and requirements of the easement, and of the design guidelines for the Old and Historic District. So that is what we’ve done and we’ve gotten approvals from both,” Quill said.

The Morrises are not the first to alter the Vowell-Snowden-Black House, and like many homes in Old Town, it has undergone various renovations and additions through the years. The pieces that the BAR has greenlighted for demolition were not part of the original 1798 structure. They include an addition on the south end of the house that was built in the 1960s or 70s and an addition on the north end of the house that was built in the early 2000s, according to Quill.

A curved white brick wall, estimated to have been built in the mid-to-late-1800s, is causing deterioration on the main house because of its proximity. The BAR approved partial demolition of the wall. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

One of the controversial pieces slated for demolition is a two-story curved wall that connects the western ell – an L-shaped structure used to add on to existing buildings – to the main house. Quill said it was built in the mid-to-late-1800s.

The Morrises requested a partial demolition of the wall, which totals 126 square feet, because it has been causing harm to the main structure. Quill said the wall abuts the main building so closely that it’s causing irreparable deterioration.

“That’s why we asked for a very selective, limited area of demolition,” Quill said. “You don’t like to take historic area out if you don’t have to, but at times in order to protect the primary resource, you do very selective demolition of stuff that’s not as old.”

City staff recommended in its report that the BAR deny the request to demolish the curved wall because of its historic character, but also acknowledged the potential harm it could cause.

“Staff concurs with the applicant and the BAR that present and future maintenance of the existing hyphen curve is problematic and potentially harmful to the primary resource,” according to page 16 of the staff report. “Staff would prefer to retain the curved ell wall in its present location purely as an example of historic construction techniques and materials but agrees with the BAR members that this may not be best for the original structure in the long term.”

With the BAR’s approval, the Morrises are permitted to demolish the wall, but will be required to document it, Quill said.

The Morrises have made several other alterations to meet the DHR and BAR standards and recommendations, including changing window patterns and adding landscaping to the north side of the property. They also re-studied several aspects of the design after the first BAR hearing in December.

Some of the project’s opponents agreed that the Morrises have proven their commitment to historic preservation. The family has lived in Alexandria for 30 years and done previous, award-winning restorations on 311 and 405 Cameron St.

“I think the Morris family means well. I think they care about historic preservation, but I also think they care about having a much larger structure on the property,” Yvonne Callahan, former president of the Old Town Civic Association, said.

Despite the alterations and the Morris’ sensitivity to the property’s history, their opponents have not been appeased.

“It’s very rare that you hear from all the preservation organizations in the city on a case,” Gail Rotherock, a member of HAF, said. “This cultural landscape is going to be so irrevocably changed that no one’s going to be able to ever tell what it was like.”

Callahan said some of the opponents are in the process of filing a petition for city council to review the BAR decision.

Unless the petition puts a hold on the project, Quill said the Morrises plan to move forward with the design.

“The wonderful thing about the Morrises,” Quill said, “[is] they’re in a position to restore the house, and you see they’re doing that and doing the additions in a very sensitive, appropriate way, following the easement, following the BAR. So it’s being done right, and it’s going to be brought back.”

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