Lette: Adaptive Reuse of Ramsey Homes

Lette: Adaptive Reuse of Ramsey Homes

Letter to the Editor

— Next month, City Council will consider the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority appeal of the Parker Gray Board of Architectural Review’s unanimous denial of its request to demolish the 15-unit scattered-site public housing complex in the Parker Gray historic district, known as Ramsey Homes. Some are framing this case as

historic preservation versus affordable housing, implying it is a zero sum game. However, that is a false dichotomy as both aims can, and should, be achieved.

The solution for Ramsey Homes is exactly the route the city took with regard to the old Health Department building at 509 North Saint Aseph St. In 2012 when the city sought to sell off unneeded property, it asked the Old and Historic District Board of Architectural Review (OHAD BAR) to examine the property. The OHAD BAR concluded the building, which is composed of a central core that was built between 1944-1947 and two additions added in the 1970s, to be architecturally and historical significant, and recommended preservation. A June 2012 memo from the city manager to City Council argued that the building should be preserved and adaptively reused. Among the reasons city staff cited for preserving the building were fact that it remained remarkably intact, exemplified the city’s institutional architecture program from the post-war period, represented the work of a well-known regional architecture firm, and that the building was “in scale with the surrounding historic and more recent townhouses buildings.” Today, the building’s exterior walls remain but the interior has been completely gutted so that the building can be reconfigured into nine luxury townhomes.

Like the old Health Department building, Ramsey Homes were also built in the 1940s, but in this case they were built as housing for African American defense workers. As such, the Ramsey Homes are significant as an important example of the Federal Government’s effort to provide housing for African-American war workers, as well as helping us to understand the role that African Americans and Alexandria played in the

war effort. The city cited Ramsey Homes as a contributing resources in the Uptown/Parker-Gray Historic District listing in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The Parker Gray BAR also unanimously voted in April that the site met four of six criteria for preservation.

Like the old Health Department building, Ramsey Homes were also designed by a notable local architect, Delos H. Smith. Smith, a member of the original Alexandria BAR, was a noted ecclesiastical architect whose work included two annex buildings at St. Paul’s Church, 228 S. Pitt St, as well as the US Capitol Building Prayer Room. Smith specialized in Colonial Revival and Federal Revival styles, making the design of Ramsey Homes in the International style all the more interesting and unique.

Like the old Health Department building, city staff also emphasize among the reasons for preservation that Ramsey Homes help to “maintain the scale and character of this area of the district which is comprised of predominantly two-story buildings …”

Like the old Health Department building, City Council should opt for preservation and adaptive reuse of Ramsey Homes. Just as was done with the Health Department building, the exterior features of Ramsey Homes, its scale, green-space and mature trees, and character can be retained, while the interior of the buildings are completely gutted and remodeled to provide quality affordable housing. City Council should support this win-win solution.

Heidi Ford