By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The Hugo Black house controversy came to a peak in the crowded city council chambers on Tuesday evening, when council unanimously voted to allow the renovation project to move forward.
Specifically, council voted to affirm the Board of Architectural Review’s Feb. 6 decision to approve partial demolition, additions and alterations at 619 S. Lee St. The Historic Alexandria Foundation, Inc. had appealed the decision.
Over the past several months, the project has attracted opposition from several historic preservation organizations in Alexandria, including HAF, that claim the proposed alterations to the home violate a historic preservation easement on the property.
The home has an extensive history in Alexandria. Built between 1798 and 1800, it has been owned over the years by Black, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice; Edgar Snowden, a former Alexandria mayor and editor of the Alexandria Gazette Packet; and Thomas Vowell, a prominent Alexandria merchant.
Owners Lori and Nigel Morris bought the property in 2013 and began planning to renovate in 2017.
Mayor Justin Wilson, who received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Lori Morris during last year’s election campaign, participated in the discussion and vote after disclosing the contribution at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. While the donation was legal, Wilson repeatedly stated during the mayoral campaign that he has a personal policy of not accepting contributions from those who bring business before council.
Because the property is located in the Old and Historic District and has a historic easement, the Morrises have had to comply with several regulations and earn the approval of various bodies while putting together plans for the project, which involves demolishing pieces of the house, putting on additions and restoring certain historic features.
One of the major discussion points throughout the process that culminated on Tuesday evening was the different organizations’ roles in regulating specific requirements.
The historic preservation easement on the property is held by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources and administered by the Department of Historic Resources, while the local BAR administers the city’s zoning regulations.
Julie Langan, director of the DHR, emphasized that the DHR’s role in regulating the project is separate from local requirements.
“This can be confusing for the public, because there are two review processes taking place concurrently. One really has no relationship on the other,” Langan said. “What a local ordinance might require, what a local Board of Architectural Review might require, what local design guidelines a community might have, have nothing to do with the Department of Historic Resources, so that’s a completely local process in which we really don’t participate.”
Since city council’s role was to hear an appeal of the BAR decision on Tuesday night, the guidelines it considered were separate from the easement between the property owners and the DHR.
At the meeting, City Attorney Joanna Anderson reaffirmed the division of responsibilities.
“The Open Space Land Act is a separate act from the zoning ordinance,” Anderson said. “We have the zoning ordinance and then the Open Space Land Act is another tool that allows for historic preservation. … Both codes apply here. This property, like we’ve said, has to comply with both of these codes.
“Right now, your role is only to decide whether it complies with the zoning ordinance standards,” Anderson said to council. “The state will determine whether it complies with the easement that they have and thus the Open Space Land Act.”
The Morrises have been working with the DHR throughout the process to ensure they obey the provisions of the easement, according to their architect, Lee Quill.
At this point in the process, the Morrises have earned approval from the DHR for their concept and schematic submissions, according to their consultant, Paige Pollard. Their last step with the DHR will be to submit construction designs.
Despite the separate review processes, residents and historic preservationists throughout the city filled council chambers to testify about the project, several of them wearing “#SaveJusticeBlackProperty” stickers. Because of an administrative error, the public hearing on the topic had to be rescheduled from April to the Tuesday meeting.
Several of the public speakers testified about the significance of the property, particularly that the time Black occupied the home was the primary period of historic significance.
“The case before you is of statewide and national importance,” HAF board member John Thorpe Richards Jr. said. “It involves the home and the historic setting of one of the titans of American law and American history, a man whose leadership changed the country we live in dramatically for the better.”
Several urged council that a project like this sets a precedent in Old Town. Because the square footage of the additions would exceed the square footage of the demolitions, the project would reduce the property’s open space by 6 percent.
“It is the largest private garden in Old Town,” Robert Montague, a spokesman of the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, said. “… I just want to say to the new members of the Alexandria City Council that this is your chance to show the community whether you really support historic preservation in this city.”
An online petition has circulated among opponents of the project, garnering 415 signatures as of Wednesday morning. The Times discloses that co-owner Leslie Ariail, a resident active in local historic preservation efforts, signed this petition and the petition to appeal the BAR’s Feb. 6 decision.
While the majority of the speakers wanted the BAR’s decision to be overturned, some spoke in favor of the renovation project.
“This design for this property is the lightest touch of any proposal I’ve seen,” BAR member Robert Adams said. “This was a modest proposal. It was well thought out. It was documented beyond anything I had seen. … They didn’t overreach.”
One of the facets of the renovation that brought about a lot of discussion was 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 wall abuts the main building so closely that it’s causing irreparable deterioration, Quill said.
After the testimony of almost 30 speakers, several councilors cited the division of duties between local bodies and the easement holder as their reasoning behind denying the appeal.
After the meeting had extended into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker moved to uphold the BAR’s decision.
“Many have raised concerns about the open space easement, which does allow for additional structures, and, as we have discussed, is held by the state and we do not have the authority to interpret it or enforce,” she said. “The certificate of appropriateness is not based on the easement but on our own zoning ordinance.”
Bennett-Parker said she was comfortable with granting the permit to demolish the curved wall since it is causing damage to the main resource, the piece of the house built around 1800.
Councilor Del Pepper put forth an amendment to Bennett-Parker’s motion to deny demolition of the curved wall, but her motion died for lack of a second.
Wilson defended his decision not to recuse himself from the Black house vote.
“About a year and a half ago, I accepted a contribution from the wife of the owner of the LLC that owns the property that’s in question here,” Wilson said. “It was a year and a half ago, it was well before this application was filed or I was aware of this application. The city attorney’s advised me she doesn’t believe it’s a conflict. I believe I can fairly handle this case.”
When another land use issue came before council during last year’s campaign, on April 14, 2018, the then Vice Mayor recused himself because he had recently received $750 in donations from the property’s owner.