NPR Cities: Urban Life In The 21st Century
5:49 pm
Tue July 10, 2012

Moving Buildings To Save D.C.'s Historic Foundation

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 10:06 pm

K Street may be synonymous with Washington, D.C.'s thriving lobbying industry, but for decades, K Street between 6th and 7th streets NW has been a dilapidated city block of 19th and early 20th century brick buildings. In recent months, staffers at NPR have witnessed the transformation of the entire city block, located behind NPR's Washington headquarters.

Six historic structures were jacked up one by one and rolled out of the way. Five of those now sit on one end of an empty plot of dirt, waiting to be transplanted near their original spots on the block, which will be the home of a new 11-story, glass-clad office building for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

But unlike most urban development projects that get rid of old buildings to make way for new ones, the new AAMC building will incorporate these old brick buildings as new restaurants and retail shops, re-creating the old streetscape while simultaneously transforming it. The $200 million-plus project raises questions of what's important to keep in a city and what should just be replaced.

Judging A Building's History

These old buildings of the 600 block of K Street NW have seen far better days. Before they were moved, a hulking two-story, yellow-brick garage built in 1918 sat at one end of the block, and at the other end, a squat car wash that was once an auto shop. Midblock sat a couple of faded grande dames. There were also three skinny Victorian-era row houses. Most recently, one was known to be a brothel.

The car wash was the first building to be moved, and it took hours to transplant it 40 feet. But crew member Kevin Kolb of Expert House Movers says these old brick structures are worth saving.

"Brick is solid. It wears. It has age," Kolb says. "It's like an old man's face. There are lines and wrinkles in it. But you know, you can power-wash that away and clean it."

The AAMC project is saving not just the building facades but also most of the depth of the buildings — a historic preservation strategy welcomed by Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, who says "facade jobs" became rampant in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and stuck out like sore thumbs on revitalized city streets.

Miller says the value of historic buildings, like books, should not be judged by their covers.

"A lot of things have to do with the history of the building," Miller says. "There could be some very nondescript building [that has] this wonderful history behind it."

According to Miller, the nondescript buildings of K Street NW tell the story of a once-thriving German immigrant neighborhood and the early automotive era, as nearby streets became a commuter corridor.

A Compromise Of Old And New

Miller's organization thoroughly researched these buildings and prepared paperwork to nominate them for national historic status. Preservation often complicates developers' plans with restrictions, permits and legal fees. So that background work also gave Miller leverage in any potential clash with developers.

But in the case of the AAMC project, there was a negotiation, not a fight. The DC Preservation League compromised with developers at Douglas Development Corp. on saving these structures without historic status. Negotiations were not too contentious because it turns out this developer likes saving old buildings.

Paul Millstein, the gung-ho head of construction at Douglas Development, says he was amazed by the concept of moving buildings to preserve them.

"You know, people move a house [or] they move a table. [But] we're moving buildings! I mean, what could be more exciting?" he asks.

But Millstein admits projects such as this one — combining old buildings with new — are impractical, and they scare lenders away.

"There's not an institution or financier or lender out there that we've ever been able to convince these make sense," Millstein says. "[There are] so many things that can go wrong from moving structures."

Still, even though it's costing millions to move these old buildings and incorporate them into the new one, Millstein sees a real benefit.

"I think it makes the buildings richer. It gives them a better feeling. They have the feng shui to them," he says.

'A Speck Of Sand In An Oyster'

Shalom Baranes is the architect of the new building. His sweeping contemporary design has space carved out for this motley assemblage of old brick. He says incorporating the old structures into the new building is "a little bit like placing a speck of sand in an oyster," ultimately "deforming" the structure — but in a good way.

"I think it makes for a much more exciting urban landscape. You sense time," Baranes say. "One of the great things about living in the city is that it has this fourth dimension of time. As you walk down the street, you sense what was done 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and those are things we don't want to lose."

Day by day, as the old buildings have been rolled away, a man has come around to capture the smaller increments of time passing on this block of K Street

"I am taking a picture of the history," says Kebrab Tekla, an immigrant from Ethiopia, as he stands outside the chain link fence surrounding the construction site, taking photos with his cellphone.

Tekla lived on this block for 25 years, back when the neighborhood was a crime-ridden wasteland. He rented the house for many years before buying it for about $300,000. He was paid more than $2 million to move.

Tekla was the last property owner to sell, and his house was demolished. But he did manage to save a bit of it.

"I saved some of my house bricks, so I have contact with them every day," Tekla says. "It's history because all my children [were] born in this house and my father, he died in this house."

That history is being rewritten as this part of Washington, D.C., undergoes massive change with new development built around signposts of the city that used to be.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And today, we get back to the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Last week, we heard about neighborhood revitalization. Today, preservation. And, Melissa, where have you gone?

BLOCK: Well, we've busted the travel budget for today's story, Robert. I've gone about, I'd say, five entire feet behind our NPR headquarters here in Washington. I'm looking across K Street where an entire block that's been dilapidated for decades is being transformed. It's been demolished and also preserved at the same time.

SIEGEL: Yes, we've been watching this out our windows for months.

BLOCK: Right.

SIEGEL: They've been moving buildings around.

BLOCK: That's right. This used to be a block of 19th, early 20th century brick buildings. And now, I'm looking at an empty plot of dirt. There are a bunch of buildings that have been moved; jacked up one by one and rolled out of the way. Now, they're going to build a huge office building for the Association of American Medical Colleges. It's going to be 300,000-or-so square feet, 11 stories tall, price tag more than $200 million.

But what's interesting is that workers are going to bring five of these old brick buildings back and incorporate them into the new building. There will be restaurants and retail, and they'll be lined up facing the street.

SIEGEL: Yes. And one of the questions we've been asking is why save those rundown buildings?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: We've been trying to figure that and we're going to try to answer that question, why save them. But first, a little bit of the how. All of these buildings have seen far better days, as you know. There was at one end a hulking, two-story, yellow brick garage built in 1918. At the other end, a car wash - a squat car wash that was once an auto shop.

And in the middle of the block, there were a couple of faded Grand Dames built with when this was a thriving German immigrant neighborhood; three skinny Victorian-era row houses, and most recently one of them was known to be a brothel.

TYLER ANDERSON: I just told my guys, don't touch anything.

BLOCK: I found Tyler Anderson outside that narrow three-story house. His company was reinforcing it so it could be moved without falling apart.

ANDERSON: There were saunas and whirlpools and walk-in showers, all on every floor. It was like oh, my God.

BLOCK: Really?

ANDERSON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF A JACKHAMMER)

BLOCK: We were year as the first building was about to be moved, the carwash, a one-story brick box.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tighten that (unintelligible)

BLOCK: And to look at it, you wouldn't think, hey, that's a great building, let's save that. But move it, they will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BLOCK: Think the time has come, the building is about to move. The crew from Expert House Movers has jacked the car wash up about six feet. They run long girders through it and bound it was cable to hold it together. It weighs about 60 tons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, let it go.

BLOCK: The whole building is perched on a remote-controlled wheels, the size of tractor trailer tires.

GABRIEL MATYIKO: These are hydrostatic, self-propelled dolly wheels.

BLOCK: That's Gabriel Matyiko, vice president of Expert House Movers.

MATYIKO: You know, it allows us to maneuver the building in a lot tighter spaces and give us a little bit of traction control, too.

BLOCK: So it's just going to go.

MATYIKO: It's just going to go.

BLOCK: Sort of like an electric toy car.

MATYIKO: Yeah, it's kind of like, you will know, Atari or something. It's got a joystick and a little handle for the brake.

BLOCK: Matyiko says this job is pretty small potatoes. They've moved lighthouses, even an airport terminal in Newark, New Jersey.

MATYIKO: It was a foot shy of a football field and weighed over 9,000 tons.

BLOCK: Still, it takes hours to move this small building 40 feet. I find crew member Kevin Kolb on a break and ask him, why bother? When he looks at this building, what does he see?

KEVIN KOLB: Brick is solid. It wears. It has age, you can see. It's like an old man's face. There are lines and wrinkles in it. But you know, you can power-wash that away and clean it. So, you know, it's something that can be fixed - I think.

(LAUGHTER)

KOLB: You'd be surprised.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Leave that. Leave it. All right, go. Chalk them. That's it.

BLOCK: That's it? She's here?

KOLB: The building is moved. She's here.

BLOCK: What's really interesting is that it's not just the façade of being preserved. They're keeping most of the depth of these buildings to. And Rebecca Miller, with the D.C. Historic Preservation League, likes to see that.

REBECCA MILLER: Facade jobs kind of became rampant in Washington in the '80s.

BLOCK: Facade jobs?

MILLER: Facade jobs, they describe them as facadetomies or facadectomies.

BLOCK: So if it's done badly, it's basically like a bad facelift - you can tell right away.

MILLER: You can tell right away, definitely. The facade just kind of sticks out in like a sore thumb, and you kind of think it looks strange. And it's not good historic preservation.

BLOCK: So why save these buildings? What's their historic value?

MILLER: As they always say, you can't judge a book by its cover, a lot of things have to do with the history of a building. So there could be some very nondescript building and have this wonderful history behind it.

BLOCK: And then Miller says these nondescript buildings tell the story of a once-thriving German immigrant neighborhood and the early automotive era, as nearby streets became a commuter corridor. Miller's organization thoroughly researched these buildings and prepared paperwork to nominate them for national historic status.

Preservation can really complicate developers' plans with the restrictions, permits, legal fees. So, that paperwork gives Miller leverage. In this case, there was a negotiation, not a fight. The Preservation League compromised with Douglas Development Corporation on saving these structures without historic status. And it wasn't too contentious. It turns out this developer likes saving old buildings.

PAUL MILLSTEIN: This is amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah.

MILLSTEIN: Absolutely just amazing.

BLOCK: Meet Paul Millstein, the gung-ho head of construction at Douglas Development.

MILLSTEIN: I love it.

BLOCK: Why?

MILLSTEIN: It's big toys to me. It's the ultimate. You're moving buildings. You know, people move a house, they move a table. We're moving buildings. I mean, what could be more exciting? The whole concept is just amazing to me.

BLOCK: And a lot of them.

MILLSTEIN: And a lot of them, which makes it even better. Anybody could move one. We wanted to move a lot of them. So it makes it a lot of fun.

BLOCK: Millstein admits projects like this one, combining old buildings with new, are impractical and they scare lenders away.

MILLSTEIN: There is not an institution or financer or lender out there that we've ever been able to convince these make sense. We've had to do these hand-to-hand combat, a bank, a private investor; take this back, scrap it together...

BLOCK: So if you're lender looking at a project like this - that involves shoring up historic buildings, moving them, fixing them up, putting them back - what's the risk there? Why don't they like it?

MILLSTEIN: It's too many parts and pieces. There's so many things that can go wrong, from moving structures, these could collapse; delays in schedule. We've encountered numerous environmental issues that we didn't know were there. You know, just all these unforeseens that consistently gets you.

BLOCK: But Paul Millstein says even though it's costing millions to move these old buildings and incorporate them into new ones, there is a real benefit.

MILLSTEIN: I think it makes the buildings richer. It gives them a better feeling. They have the feng shui to them.

SHALOM BARANES: It's a little bit like placing a speck of sand in an oyster.

BLOCK: Shalom Baranes is the architect of the new building. His sweeping contemporary design has space carved out for this motley assemblage of old brick.

BARANES: It deforms the ultimate structure, the ultimate being of the oyster. And...

BLOCK: You're saying deforms in a good way.

BARANES: In a very positive way, exactly. And, you know, I think historic buildings can do the exact same thing. I think it makes for a much more exciting urban landscape. You sense time. You know, I think one of the great things about living in the city is that it has this fourth dimension of time. You know, as you walk down the street, you sense what was done 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and those are things we don't want to lose.

BLOCK: Day by day, as the old buildings have been rolled away, a man has come around to capture the smaller increments of time passing. I found him outside the chain-link fence taking pictures with his cell phone.

KEBRAB TEKLA: I'm taking a picture of the history.

BLOCK: Kebrab Tekla is an immigrant from Ethiopia. He lived on this block for 25 years, back when the neighborhood was a crime-ridden wasteland. Tekla was the last property owner to sell, and his house was demolished. But he did manage to save a bit of it.

TEKLA: You know, I saved some of my house bricks. So...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You did?

TEKLA: So I have contact with them every day.

BLOCK: You saved some of the bricks.

TEKLA: Yes.

BLOCK: Why?

TEKLA: It's history. Because all my children born in this house. And my father, he died in this house. So it's a lot of history on there, to me, to that house.

BLOCK: And that history is being rewritten as this part of Washington, D.C., undergoes massive change with new development built around signposts of the city that used to be.

I'm at the corner of Seventh and K Streets, Northwest here in Washington heading back up to the studio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.