Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Preserve Historic Site

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Preserve Historic Site

As a 24-year resident of Alexandria, I have seen — and at times participated in — major efforts to preserve historic homes and architecture. One would think that City Hall would be inclined to preserve the very parts of our city that attracts visitors from all over the nation and world — tourists who contribute to the city’s tax revenues.

Yet, the City Council will hear on May 14, an appeal of the decision by the Old and Historic Alexandria Board of Architectural Review to partially demolish the historic home of Justice Hugo L. Black and erode the protected open space.

This is a precedent-setting case. If this historic house cannot be saved, then nothing can preserved in Alexandria or throughout Virginia.

I do not exaggerate, as ruining the integrity of this house would go against the state law and city ordinances that have protected it for the last 48 years.

The house was constructed circa 1800. Justice Black, regarded as one of the most influential U.S. Supreme Court justices in history, lived there for more than three decades until his death in 1971. Family members and law clerks have written about how the justice would ponder some of the most monumental cases in history in his home and garden.

Justice Black and his wife, Elizabeth, executed an easement on the property to preserve in perpetuity the open space and house, under the Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966. The gift was the second ever in Virginia’s history and the first in Alexandria.

The Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission certified the Black house and gardens as a “principal historic site — of state-wide and national significance.” The National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey celebrates the house as an “outstanding example of the Federal ‘row’-type buildings in Alexandria” that “has fortunately been spared the fate of suffocation.”

Upon the 50th anniversary of Justice Black’s death, Sept. 25, 2021, the property would become eligible for designation as a National Historic Landmark, the highest preservation listing, but not if its historic integrity were lost by approval of the proposed additions and demolitions.

The Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966 prohibits the diversion of open space protected by the Act unless five specific conditions are met. None of those five conditions has been satisfied in this pending case, nor has there been any attempt to do so.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) must preserve the easements. The City Council also must abide by city zoning ordinance which includes more stringent standards for appropriateness in the Old and Historic Alexandria District. Drawings of the project show the proposed destruction of open space.

If the City Council were to approve the proposal to undermine the historic integrity of Justice Black’s house, the impact would be long-term and extensive damage to historic preservation in Alexandria and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Justice Black house must be saved.

Gebe M. Johnson