- Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C. by Cameron Logan
Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017
304 pages, 28 black-and-white photographs, 13 maps ISBN: 978-0-8166-9234-7, $27.00 PB
Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; the creative restoration of Colonial Williamsburg; the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. These are some of the watershed moments in the history of historic preservation in the United States. What Cameron Logan offers in Historic Capital is not an alternative narrative, but a deeper context from which we can continue to interrogate the metanarrative of historic preservation in the United States.
Curiously, the roots of preservation in Washington are quite distinct from the patriotism and urge to construct and secure the stories of the nation’s forefathers underlying Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, in spite of the position of Washington, D.C., in the national imaginary. Instead, Washington preservation is historically grounded in the safeguarding of residential spaces in the city, both against opportunistic speculators in Georgetown and against the encroachment of the monumental core and the federal government into the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Logan provides the reader with case studies of some of Washington’s better-known and established neighborhoods, as well as areas that have recently undergone gentrification, like the U Street Corridor and LeDroit Park, in an effort to not only reveal the long history of historic preservation in Washington, but to integrate that story with arguments about the relationship between real estate, race, and historic preservation.
The book is structured both chronologically and thematically, with case studies spanning the early twentieth to early twenty-first centuries. Logan’s introduction, “From ‘Life Inside a Monument’ to Living in Historic Neighborhoods,” sets the tone of the book, one that contrasts visions of the city as a scarcely inhabited monumental landscape frozen in time to one that has engaged citizen-residents with distinct sociocultural customs. He highlights how conspicuous domesticity, particularly that of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia and Henry and Mary Adams on Lafayette Square, brought private life into the public sphere. The first chapter, “Value: Property, History, and Homeliness in Georgetown,” puts forth the argument that preservation is not anticapitalist, but “an attempt to shape and control real estate markets rather than reject the logic of capitalist accumulation in the built environment” (6). He uses the intent and arguments of the Georgetown Homeowners’ Committee, which lobbied Congress to restrict zoning for large-scale design in the neighborhood, to support this notion. The second chapter, “Taste: Architectural Complexity and Social Diversity in the 1960s,” outlines various neighborhood organizations’ attempts at self-promotion. Capitol Hill residents, many with connections to the federal government and international travel experience, opened up their homes and gardens for tours that exhibited their worldly interiors. Georgetown residents began to do the same, promoting the significant collection of federal-period architecture in the neighborhood. Scholarly endeavors, on the other hand, created a greater appreciation for the Victorian townhouses that constituted a large portion of Washington’s urban fabric, creating a more populist notion of what types of houses were tasteful and had intrinsic design value.
The book shifts with chapter 3, “The White House and Its Neighborhood: Federal City Making and Local Preservation, 1960–1975.” Here Logan covers the increased professionalization of the field and how planners, architects, and curators worked in tandem with the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Joint Committee of Landmarks to create a preservation policy framework in the city. He covers the Kennedy’s restoration of the White House and Jacqueline Kennedy’s interest in the redevelopment of Lafayette Square. He also chronicles the birth of Washington’s first official preservation organization, Don’t Tear It Down!, which opposed certain aspects of the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment plan. Finally, he discusses the impact of two pieces of major legislation—the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973—on local politics...