To the editor:
The recent story of 619 S. Lee St., the Justice Hugo Black house, is truly a case of truth being stranger than fiction. The case is before city council on appeal of a Board of Architectural Review decision that would allow extensive additions and renovations and would forever change the nature of both a designated Virginia Historic Landmark and contravene a Virginia Open Space Land Act easement.
Every Alexandria preservation and regional entity dealing with historic preservation, including the Historic Alexandria Foundation, Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, the Northern Virginia Conservation Council and the Old Town Civic Association, is asking the city council to overturn the BAR’s decision. I share several of these organizations’ concerns.
First, if this project proceeds, it would break a historic easement and ignore the Virginia Historic Landmark Designation. One of the first perpetual historic preservation easements granted by the Commonwealth of Virginia that Black sought out in 1969 has been surprisingly relaxed by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, although the VHR denied the initial request and requests by previous owners. The current owners were well aware when they bought this property that the house and open space are protected by historic easement.
It would also endanger the preservation of an important part of Alexandria’s and the nation’s history. Black was both an ardent supporter of freedom of speech and the First Amendment and the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment. The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that mandated desegregation of public schools was said to have been decided when members of the court gathered around Black’s dining table in the house. He also wrote an opinion in 1964 that finally put an end to the denial of African American school children’s right to equal education. Why would Alexandria fail to preserve this important legacy?
Allowing this proposed project would violate the Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966 that prohibits the diversion of open space protected by the Act unless five specific conditions are met, none of which have been satisfied.
Given these facts, I ask that Alexandria citizens ask Mayor Justin Wilson and city council to vote to save and protect a vital part of Alexandria and American history for future generations, the home of the seminal Supreme Court justice who lived in our city – Hugo Black.
-Nancy Kegan Smith, Alexandria