The controversy surrounding the home popularly called the Hugo Black house, previously owned by the late, famed Supreme Court justice, is not as cut-and-dried as the supporters and detractors of the proposed renovation indicate. The conversation sits at the crossroad of significant, weighty ideas, of promises, precedent, preservation and gratitude.
The home itself, located at 619 S. Lee St. in Old Town, has a storied history. Also referred to as the Vowell-Snowden-Black house, it dates back to 1800. The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that mandated desegregation of public schools was apparently decided when members of the court gathered around Justice Black’s kitchen table in the house.
The house was later owned for years by renowned lawyer David Ginsberg, who worked for President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and advised presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
At issue is a historic easement that Black obtained for the house 50 years ago. Historic easements are agreements with the Virginia state government to protect structures or, in this case, open space. Black’s easement was obtained through the Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966.
In exchange for agreeing to a set of conditions to preserve the open space of the property and limit changes that could be made to the existing building, Black in 1969 obtained a historic easement that resulted in significant tax savings for the property’s owners through the years.
The property’s current owners are Nigel and Lori Morris, who are among the most respected and generous residents in our city’s long history of philanthropy. The Morrises were instrumental in founding ACT for Alexandria, support numerous city nonprofits and have renovated several homes and buildings with the finest quality and care.
It’s difficult to imagine a family better suited to preserve a historic treasure than the Morrises. Any discussion regarding the current topic must begin with gratitude for what they have done and continue to do in Alexandria.
Preservation of open space is sparking this controversy, as opponents believe any renovation should not increase the square footage of the home. According to the city staff report, the proposed renovation would decrease the property’s open space – the very thing the easement was supposed to preserve – by 6 percent, from 32,012 square feet to 30,141 square feet.
Setting a precedent is probably the most concerning aspect of the proposal. It’s possible to argue that the renovation only encroaches a little bit on the current open space and that only one easement out of thousands is being altered. But that “it’s only one” argument is insufficient, since it could cause irreparable cracks in the state’s foundation of historic easements once a new precedent is set.
The final principle at stake is that of keeping promises, something that our city doesn’t have a great recent track record of.
We wonder, even at this late date just 10 days before the April 13 public hearing on the issue, if compromise isn’t possible. Could the size of the additions be scaled back?
Or, in the pursuit of fairness, if city council votes to allow the renovation, perhaps the current owners should be required to pay a significant percentage of the taxes that were forgiven over the past 50 years because of the easement.
When all factors are considered, we think the best decision in this difficult case would be to either deny any addition that subtracts from the Black property’s open space, or to require the taxpayers of Alexandria be compensated for the revenue lost through the years from the easement.