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The Needless Death of a Shepherd Park House

Yesterday, a house on my street was demolished.

It had become so unstable that it was a danger to the adjacent houses, and there was probably no choice but to tear it down.

It had become dangerously unstable because the "cash for houses" vultures who bought it last fall let it decay, let the pipes freeze, and then, when spring came, demolished its chimney, ripped half its roof off, and left it exposed to the torrential rains of recent weeks. All this with a permit for "interior demolition only".

April 2014: "Interior demolition only"A helpful sign reminding you who not to sell your house toThey proudly planted their sign in front of this abomination.

Concerned neighbors and our ANC rep called in DCRA to inspect on the day the chimney was ripped out and again yesterday when the house was knocked over. DCRA responded very promptly, but in both cases it was too late. A stop-work order now sits atop the pile of rubble that used to be this house. 

May 14, 2014: Stop-work order posted amid the wreckage

Until the day in April when they knocked down the chimney and tore a hole in the roof, the house was in need of interior rehab, but it was structurally sound, with a welcoming porch, at one with the scale and period of the houses on the block, with room to expand in the back if a new family needed more space. Like many houses in Shepherd Park, which has a very high rate of home ownership and a very low rate of turnover, it was owned by an elderly couple, who lived in it and loved it until the very last possible minute, at which point they needed to sell and move very quickly. Like the other houses on our block in the southeast corner of Shepherd Park, it was built in the early 1920s, before L.E. Breuninger filled the neighborhood  with its better-known Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival houses.  Because the houses in our corner of the neighborhood are mostly shingled or clapboarded, a little older, a little smaller, and a little closer to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Walter Reed campus, I've long suspected that they would be more vulnerable to redevelopment pressures than the neighborhood's larger brick houses of the late 1920s.

During the few years since I bought my itty bitty shingled, kit-house bungalow here, several houses in the nearby blocks have been, one might say, "sensitively flipped" — bought at a modest discount from the going rate, given complete interior rehabs, and sold to young families eager for move-in-ready houses at half the price they'd pay for an equally leafy neighborhood west of the park. Other houses in "estate condition," including a very rare Sears kit house model, have sold to folks who clearly appreciated their scale and architecture and who updated them modestly for livability without destroying their character. Houses are going under contract in a matter of days here. Why, in this environment, anyone would purchase a house and intentionally destroy it by malicious neglect is beyond me. Public records suggest, meanwhile, that the previous owners sold the house for a pittance compared to what they might have gotten for it, which in turn suggests that they (or whoever was acting for them) were badly advised or seriously misled. I cannot imagine that after living in and loving this house so long, the previous owners would have wanted this to happen.

I'd been meaning for some time to write up my thoughts on preservation in Shepherd Park, and how we might think about preservation in DC's neighborhoods outside of designated historic districts. Today, the issue seems more urgent. Even in designated historic districts, it is very difficult to prevent demolition by neglect. In or out of historic districts, what can be done to limit the chances that houses — and their owners — will reach the stage where they become prey for predatory developers?

When I moved to Shepherd Park, I began to read up on the neighborhood's history. I knew about its outstanding legacy of organizing to remain integrated and stable in the 1950s and '60s, when local synagogues and Neighbors, Inc. took a stand against blockbusting. What I had not appreciated, until I read the chapter on Shepherd Park in Washington at Home by the late Marvin Caplan and my neighbor Ralph Blessing, was how much of Neighbors, Inc.'s effort was focused on preserving the physical fabric of the neighborhood and preventing the decay of housing stock that inevitably followed blockbusting, by educating residents on the importance of home preservation and by holding the city to account for maintenance of infrastructure as the neighborhood's racial makeup changed.

As one neighbor put it in a discussion of this case on the Shepherd Park listserv, we organized to resist blockbusting then; this is house-busting. What can we do to stop this? Historic designation would be one approach, but we also have to act on a household-by-household, block-by-block level to ensure we have something left to designate, if and when residents decide to opt into the tools available under our preservation ordinance. We could use some attention from preservationists to preserving neighborhoods until designation, not just after. And that means supporting everyone who is a steward of an older house, at all life stages.

The beauty of Shepherd Park today, its house-proudness, the tendency of its people to stay in their homes as long as they possibly can — all these are the direct result of that organizing effort. The ability of residents to stay in their houses for 50+ years, with the support of their neighbors, is a huge quality-of-life asset for this neighborhood and others like it. Preserving smaller houses, as well as bringing new housing options to the neighborhood's edges, means that longtime residents have the option of staying in the neighborhood when they can no longer cope with large, multi-level houses. (Other elderly neighbors of mine were able to trade their large colonial for a one-level bungalow three blocks away when they could no longer handle stairs. And I bought my own one-level bungalow with the intention of aging in place in it, even though I'm only in middle age now.)

Practical preservation in such neighborhoods needs to support both people and houses through generational transitions like the one Shepherd Park is undergoing now. Though it is often impossible to intervene in the decay of an elderly person's house if they don't want to accept help, as many of us know from our own families, there are practical things that could be done to support preservation while supporting residents. A few that come to mind:

Aging-in-place villages — one is in the works for Shepherd Park and nearby neighborhoods — typically have as a core service helping the elderly to find approved and trustworthy home repair people. Such services could prioritize preservation by identifying for their members the tradespeople who will do right by a home from a preservation point of view. 

Decisions about the disposition of a house often need to be made very quickly and under conditions of stress, either by owners in circumstances of illness, injury, or loss, or by executors when an estate needs to be settled quickly. "Villages" and other neighborhood organizations (Citizens' Associations, ANCs) could limit the chances that sellers will turn to cash-for-houses outfits by providing information and resources to smooth that process and to help owners articulate their wishes for their houses in advance of a crisis.

Neighborhood and citywide preservation organizations need to be in on this conversation and on the scene with practical help. Within historic districts, preservation organizations should partner with neighborhood groups to be sure vulnerable residents have the information they need to make decisions that are right both for themselves and for the preservation of the neighborhood. The same thing needs to happen outside designated historic districts, because if we lose our housing stock and neighborhood character at the moment of generational transfer, there will be nothing left to preserve when future residents come to see the historic value in their surroundings.

We need to make it easier for property owners to find the preservation-minded handyman, remodeler, architect, or real estate agent than the predatory one, and that means that those who value neighborhood preservation must be on the scene with the right information right when it is needed.


Improvements in Episcopal Church Wayfinding and Welcome

This is a drive-by post — literally! Brief background: Washington, D.C.'s oldest church, St. Paul's–Rock Creek Parish (founded 1712) sits in the middle of a huge, historic cemetery. The church is not easy to find within the cemetery, and the cemetery's main gates are hard to find in the streets of the adjacent neighborhood. To make matters more confusing, most people encounter the cemetery as they zoom past on a high-speed stretch of North Capitol Street, where there is a tantalizing view of the cemetery grounds, and a gate, but no place to stop, and no safe way to cross from the neighborhood just to the east. 

Google Map of Rock Creek Cemetery

Zooming down North Capitol Street. Orange arrow indicates location of gate.

For many years, this gate had two signs: a small, standard, and somewhat battered "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign, and, right next to it, a big ol' padlock and a sign saying, "Private Property, No Trespassing"! It was necessary to keep that gate locked almost all the time, because the isolation of the cemetery grounds and the great value of the monumental bronzes within meant that security became a major issue in recent years. The parish just did not have the resources to keep that gate open and secure – nor, as things stand, is the North Capitol Street gate ever going to be a pedestrian entrance to the grounds. Still, the optics were terrible — all the more so, because before it was integrated in the 1970s, Rock Creek Parish had a reputation for turning its back on its African-American neighbors. The church is now integrated, majority-African-American, and very welcoming, but the very public but unused gate remained a quandary.

I was, therefore, THRILLED to note as I drove down North Capitol towards Catholic University yesterday that there is a fantastic new sign at that gate. The no-trespassing sign is still there, but you no longer notice it, because right next to it, placed and sized for the convenience of commuters by car, is a gorgeous new sign.

New sign at the North Capitol Street gate, April 2014

It says:



This Entrance

Open Only on Sundays


Well done, St. Paul's-Rock Creek! It's clear, it's welcoming, it identifies the church (and its affiliation) and the historic site most people are seeking (the cemetery), and it has offers simple, practical help finding the actual entrance. It's a huge improvement — about as good a solution as one could imagine, given the traffic and security situation.


A Skylight on Folsom Place (article preview)

Here's an advance copy (PDF) of an article about research in progress for a house history I'm working on in Cleveland Park. This will appear in the forthcoming issue of the newsletter of the Cleveland Park Historical Society. (Check out my house history and research services business here.) Enjoy!


52 Ancestors, nos. 2 and 3: Morris Lauter and Julia (Chavid) Rosenfeld

Nothing like a blogging resolution to bring blogging to a halt, eh? I'll play catch-up by doing a couple of ancestors at once. 

Morris and Julia* Rosenfeld Lauter were my great-great-grandparents on my mother's side. That side of my family has been in Philadelphia from the beginning — the beginning being Morris's arrival from Ukraine in 1891. The Lauters and the Rosenfelds came from Berdichev, a famous shtetl in the region of Kiev. Morris came to the U.S. by himself in 1891, and Julia followed a year later with their children. All five of their children, Mary, Abe (my great-grandfather), Rose, Fannie, and Lizzy, were born in the old country. In 1892, when Julia traveled to the U.S. with them, the oldest of them was 7 and the youngest was an infant. The mind boggles at what such a journey must have been like.

"My grandmother spoke only Jewish"

My grandmother Hope, Julia's granddaughter, used to tell me, "My grandmother spoke only Jewish and I spoke only English, but we understood each other perfectly." I suspect that's a pattern repeated across the generations in many immigrant families. It suggests that my grandmother Hope knew a Yiddish-speaking environment in her earliest years — something of which we (or at least I) otherwise had no hint during Hope's later years. Morris died in the year Hope was born, but Julia lived until Hope was 27, so my grandmother knew her Yiddish-speaking grandmother for a significant portion of her life.

The census, on the other hand, offers an interesting and different window on the linguistic state of affairs: in 1900, the census recorded the linguistic and literacy competence of residents. Julia is listed as speaking English and being able to read, but not being able to write. Here's a detail of the entry for the Lauter family in the 1900 census. It shows that Morris (listed first) came in 1891 and Julia and the children a year later. The boxes to the right contain answers to the questions Can read? Can write? Can speak Engliish? For Julia (second line), the answers are yes-no-yes.


Who knows whether this means she could read English but not write it, or read Yiddish but not write it, or...? It's easy to imagine that she could speak some English when she needed to, but chose to speak Yiddish at home, which is what her granddaughter remembered. 

Looking around the neighborhood with Google Maps

Despite my Philadelphia connections, including having gone to college nearby, I'd never really thought about the geography of Jewish Philadelphia around the turn of the last century. When I was pulling together my notes for this post, I was reminded that Morris's occupation was listed as a grocer – a fact confirmed by his listings in city directories from 1899 on – and I finally thought to look up his address in Google Maps. 518 Lombard Street is now a very nicely renovated corner townhouse, with what looks like it could have been a commercial space on the ground floor. It's reasonable to expect that the Lauters lived above their shop. 

View Larger Map

Since I don't know that neighborhood well, I then thought to "walk around" virtually to see what was nearby. Lo and behold, look what's directly across the street!

A rather splendid synagogue, which turns out to be historic Congregation B'nai Abraham. That impressive building was not built until 1910, but the Lauters' residence (and business) at that corner puts them right at the center of Jewish life in that part of Philly in those days. The major commercial center in the community was 4th Street (Der Ferder) above South Street, just a couple of blocks away.

While I was exploring the neighborhood with Google and the census, it occurred to wonder whether the Doskows, the family of my great grandmother Sarah who married Abe Lauter, lived nearby. Back to the 1900 census, and yup: 434 Lombard Street. Little Abe and little Sarah grew up just a block apart. I'll come back to the Doskows in a future post.

*A note from a cousin says that Julia's Hebrew name was Jochebed — the name of Moses's mother — and her Yiddish name, by which her immediate family knew her, was Chavid. But she went by Julia for all public purposes once she was in the U.S. Julia is on her tombstone: 


Chairless at the Cathedral

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for the diocese?

Last week, the Washington National Cathedral removed all the chairs from its nave and held a series of events to allow people to explore the empty, altered space in various ways. (Read more about the week's events here.) As you know, I am passionately interested in the way people experience space in Episcopal churches. I've known the Cathedral literally as long as I can remember – I started Beauvoir when I'd just turned 4 – and had never seen the nave empty of chairs, so I was definitely not going to miss this.

I was able to attend two evening events during #WNCnochairs week. On the Tuesday night, I went to Evensong, which was held in St. John's Chapel, alongside the Great Choir. The nave was completely empty, and before Evensong, the Cathedral was completely silent. The floor of the nave, it turns out, is sea-green marble, which is almost entirely covered by the chairs in their normal configuration. With the chairs gone, you can read the full height of the nave arcade, and the piers appear to rise from a placid sea.

The few minutes I had to explore the space before and after the service went a long way to recapturing, for me, the feeling of the Cathedral as permeable sacred space as I knew it during my free-range childhood in the neighborhood. It used to be possible to go in any door at almost any time, and simply let your imagination rebound off the stone. The Cathedral has increasingly — and for understandable reasons — closed off ways of entering in recent years. The transept doors have been closed since the 2011 earthquake, and now, partly for security and partly because of the urgent need to raise restoration funds, visitors must enter through only one door at the west end and present themselves to staff before entering. Although entry for worship is free, the requirement to account for your purposes in visiting has largely shut off the sense that the Cathedral might be a place of private wonder. (I assume it goes without saying that a child of 9 or 10 would never be allowed to roam the Cathedral unaccompanied nowadays.)

During no-chairs week, however, there was almost no gatekeeping — none at the entrance, one helpful Purple Hat Lady within, and absolutely mimimal ushing and shushing. The empty space was defamiliarized. People who clearly know the Cathedral well gathered in small groups to point and exclaim and share their renewed wonder at the space.

On the Wednesday evening, I went to the informal choral concert. A choir sang first from the crossing, then moved up to the high altar for a second piece, and then deployed around the nave for Tallis's "Spem in alium". The people were free to move around the nave ad lib. during the singing.  Two things I particularly noticed (in addition to the stunning music, that is):

An audience (or congregation) free to move is much better at stillness than one forced to sit still.

People in wheelchairs were moving about the space with particular freedom.

I think of myself as pretty attuned to accessibility issues, since my dad used a wheelchair, but I didn't realize until that evening how much of a barrier the ordinary arrangement of chairs presents.

The new sense of freedom in the space, and the defamiliarizing effect, made me wonder about the liturgical implications.

What if the Eucharist came together like a flash mob in the midst of the people as they milled about in the great space?

What if the Cathedral took advantage of its vast range of different types of liturgical spaces to have a liturgy that danced and moved, as at St. Gregory of Nyssa?

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for parishes in the diocese? Congregations might come and worship in any of the Cathedral's spaces and see what it's like when a familiar community brings their worship into unfamiliar configurations.

I don't know to what extent Seeing Deeper was driven by liturgical concerns and to what extent it was a product of the visitor services side of things. On the latter front, I think it was a great success, but I hope the implications on the liturgical side aren't lost. Obviously there was a lot of clergy participation in the week's events, and the Dean was out and about, welcoming people and experiencing the space (and recording it with his iPhone). I didn't detect much public diocesan engagement with the experiment. I hope people will continue to compare notes (including in comments here) on their no-chairs experience, and that the Cathedral and our congregations will take inspiration from it in the year ahead.

Did you go to the Cathedral during #WNCnochairs? What was your experience? What might we take away from the experiment?

Addendum: Kathy Stuadt has a wonderful reflection on Seeing Deeper at the diocesan blog.