To the Editor:
Do Alexandria’s historic districts mean anything? That is the question that City Council will answer Sept. 12 when it decides whether to uphold or overturn the Parker Gray Board of Architectural Review’s unanimous decision to reject the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s (ARHA) request to demolish Ramsey Homes on 600 block of North Patrick Street. Not only was the BAR’s decision unanimous, they also agreed that Ramsey Homes met four of the six established criteria to merit preservation.
The 15-unit garden-style Ramsey Homes were built in 1942 under the Lanham Act to provide permanent housing for defense workers for WW II — specifically, African American defense workers. They were the first public housing to be built in Parker Gray, and remain today an example that small-scale scattered site public housing works. The City of Alexandria specifically designated Ramsey Homes as a contributing resource to the Uptown/Parker Gray National Register Historic District whose period of significance runs through 1959. The city’s nomination form highlights that the Ramsey Homes “present an attractive appearance and represent stylish trends of the 1930s and 1940s, modestly detailed but reflecting the Craftsman and Prairie-style characteristics … .” Today, the Ramsey Homes is the only extant public housing of the modest International Modernist style in Parker Gray. So, one must ask, how can the city on the one hand affirm the architectural and historic importance of Ramsey Homes, and on the other hand, authorize its destruction?
The Braddock Metro Small Area Plan warns that “there is a sense that this vital neighborhood, with its rich history and charming residential streets will become just an anonymous part of Alexandria’s urban expanse and an afterthought to Old Town unless steps are taken to affirm its individual character.” It is scattered sites like Ramsey Homes that differentiate Parker Gray from other parts of Old Town. The placement and architecture of Ramsey Homes is unique as are the wide expanses of green-space and the reason they were built; together these features constitute an important chapter in the story of the Parker Gray neighborhood.
If City Council approves ARHA’s appeal and permits the demolition of a unique site that the city continually describes as a contributing resource to the Parker Gray historic district, then how can the city ever deny future requests to demolish any structure in the historic districts? If meeting four of six criteria for preservation isn’t sufficient, then what exactly is? We are on the precipice of a very slippery slope. ARHA has not maintained the units, nor does it appear it has undertaken the typical upgrades that single family homeowners routinely make to their historic properties. Now, ARHA is arguing that it is more cost effective to tear down the units rather than rehabilitate them. Well, if expense and convenience are justifiable reasons for destroying historic properties, then we might as well say goodbye to our historic districts and the fabric of our historic neighborhoods.