The recent story of 619 S. Lee, the Justice Hugo Black House, is truly a case of truth being stranger than fiction. The case is before the City Council on appeal of a BAR decision allowing extensive additions and renovations that would forever change the nature of both a designated Virginia Historic Landmark and contravene a Virginia Open Space Land Act Easement. Every Alexandria preservation and regional entity dealing with historic preservation including the Historic Alexandria Foundation, Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, the Northern Virginia Conservation Council and the Old Town Civic Association are asking the City Council to overturn the BAR’s decision. Some of the concerns with the proposed renovation project are:
Breaking a historic easement and ignoring the Virginia Historic Landmark Designation: One of the first perpetual historic preservation easements granted by the commonwealth of Virginia that Justice Black proactively sought out in 1969 has been surprisingly relaxed by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, although the VHR first denied the initial request and requests by previous owners. The current owners were well aware when they bought this property that the house and open space are protected by a historic easement.
Endangering the preservation of an important part of Alexandria’s and the Nation’s History: Justice Black is listed in any history of the Supreme Court as one of the top 10 Justices. What an honor for Alexandria to include his home. In his rulings he was both an ardent supporter of Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment and the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment. The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that mandated desegregation of public schools was said to have been decided when members of the court gathered around Justice Black’s dining table in the house. He also wrote an opinion in 1964 that finally put an end to the denial of African American school children’s right to an equal education in Virginia and the nation. Why would Alexandria fail to preserve this important legacy?
Violation of The Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966: prohibiting the diversion of open space protected by the Act unless five specific conditions are met, none of which have been satisfied. The proposal includes massive new construction that would virtually double the footprint of the existing house, removing Landmark Open Space in the same amount.
Given these facts, I ask that Alexandria citizens ask the mayor and council to vote to save and protect a vital part of Alexandria and American history for future generations at 619 South Lee St. — the story of the seminal Supreme Court Justice who lived in our city — Justice Hugo Black.
Nancy Kegan Smith