On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Billie Schaeffer steps out of her home in the 300 block of North St. Asaph Street and walks down into a meticulously kept narrow alley. The alley is listed by the city as private property but belonging to no one. It leads into a small lot where a row of three century- old homes and their placid gardens can be seen.
Listed on the 1885 Sanborn Maps as occupied by "negro tenants," each of the three row houses was awarded an oval bronze plaque by the Historic Alexandria Foundation. The plaque recognizes buildings that are more than 100 years old and maintain their original structure.
"When you walk into our homes and step into our backyards, it is, as silly as it sounds, a paradise" Schaeffer says.
But not everyone agrees.
One of the townhome’s owners submitted a petition to allow partial demolition on one of those homes in the summer of 2007. The Board of Architectural Review denied the petition and the owners appealed the decision to the city council of Alexandria
Stephen Milone, Division Chief of Zoning and Land Use Services, defended the decision of the BAR by stating that the house was significant for its mid19th Century structure and form, its historic fabric and as a component of an historic district, the Old Town Historic District.
In an attempt to clarify BAR’s classification of the home as a possible historical site, councilman Paul C. Smedberg defined it as "welcoming to writers, poets and tourists." But Duncan Blair, the attorney, did not share the same opinion.
"The house went from a simple vernacular house that regrettably, given the period of time, was probably on the wrong side of the tracks," said Blair, referring to the physical location of the home in the lower class section of the city prior to the improvements done to it in 1965.
The opponents and supporters of the appeal presented their arguments before the members of the council. Both sides agreed that the integrity of the structure —the bricks and mortar — was no longer there. The roof and siding had been redone and a bay window, though without authorization, had been installed. They also agreed that previous improvements had not altered the original plans or "footprint" of the structure.
SUPPORTERS OF THE petition argued that nobody of importance had lived there but former slaves and small-trades people. They also asserted that the BAR’s denial to allow any alteration was a violation of the Fifth Amendment pertaining to rights of property owners.
The opponents, however, defended their stand on the case by reminding the council that there was more to history than bricks and mortars. The original form was still there and the social status of the original tenants did alter its historical value.
"Many big, affluent homes have been preserved, but lower class and middle class homes, there is not a lot of that. People tend to think that is not important," said Laura Teresinski, an opponent of the petition and a concerned neighbor "African American history is deserving of attention."
"African American History is part of Alexandria, is part of our country. Period. If anything can be done to save it, it should be done," says Joe Dickson, an Alexandria resident.
Blair argued before the council that while it is not known why there have been no alterations to the homes in the past 150 years, to allow changes in a historical construction was representative of the passage of time. Schaeffer’s rebuttal "For 150 years, every single person who has lived in those homes appreciated them, loved them and respected them."
Gilberto Torres-Gonzalez, a recent resident of the City of Alexandria and former history professor at the University of Puerto Rico, points out that "the unique architecture has a cultural and social value. The value of these homes is in their representation of the cultural and social development of the City of Alexandria. To destroy them, is to destroy a piece of art."
Oscar Fitzgerald, a member of the BAR, explained that the proposal not only alters the footprint of the house, it also affects the historical essence of the community.
The city council voted unanimously to uphold BAR’s decision.
"If we cannot save this very significant block, very significant site, what does that say for the rest of the historical homes?" Vice Mayor Redella Pepper asked.
NINE MONTHS after the ordeal, all is quiet in North St. Asaph Street. The three century- old homes stand as they did before the petition.
"It is very important that the historic fabric be retained," said Milone, who informed the City Council that his office recommends property owners seek advice from his office before spending too much money and time with unapproved petitions.
"People are letting bygones be bygones," says Whitney Steve another opponent of the petition.