Old Anacostia’s abandominiums abide. Some vacant a matter of weeks, others a couple years, many a decade or two or three. “An entire generation of children have grown up in Anacostia only knowing a neighborhood of abandominiums,” says local activist William Alston-El.
“Ask Rip Van Winkle; he could tell you the last time someone was living there,” Alston-El remarks as we stand in front of a two-story Victorian home at 1220 Maple View SE that has been abandoned for parts of six decades according to property records. A look down the street unfolds a panorama of the city with the Capitol Dome punctuating the skyline.
“The city owns it now. You think they’ll save it? They’re the only ones that can. They could if they wanted to but this isn’t the Anacostia people want to talk about.”
Teal paint still clings in places to the window frames of the home, known as “Big Green,” built in 1902 for N. R. Harnish, the shopkeeper at the Government Hospital for the Insane, just up Nichols Avenue, today Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Popular neighborhood myth has incorrectly held that the home was that of Dr. Charles H. Nichols, the first superintendent of the Government Hospital, today known as Saint Elizabeths. (Nichols died in December 1889 and lived on campus.)
By the late 1880s Harnish, an emigrant from Nova Scotia, was working at the Hospital and making $50 a month, according to government reports. In 1901, Harnish was making more than $65 a month, and his wife, Annie, was making $18 as the assistant storekeeper. The next year, Harnish applied for a building permit to construct a two-story, multi-family dwelling for an estimated cost of $4,000.
In August 1933, at the age of ninety-one, Nathaniel Robert Harnish passed away at his home. His funeral was held at Emanuel Episcopal Church at 13th and V Streets and he was interred at Rock Creek Cemetery. In February 1952, Annie S. Harnish, a resident of Washington for more than 60 years, passed away at 1220 Maple View Place. She was 98 years old. In November the property was transferred to a new owner, Rose Lawler, pursuant with Harnish’s will. In September of 1954 the home’s deed of trust was mortgaged by the Anacostia Federal Savings and Loan Association for $9,5000 with monthly payments of $71.25. A decade later, the house was returned to Lawler.
Soon thereafter, in late 1964, the home was advertised in the Post as being “VACANT – DECORATED.” The listing for 1220 Maple View SE read, “DETACHED TWO FAMILY, 2 klts., 2 baths, 10 rms., full bsmt., auto. heat., conv. area.” The ad ran for a number of months.
It is unclear from subsequent property and tax records when the house was next occupied. In conversations with area residents it appears the home may have been lived in for a short period during the 1980s. Other residents, such as Alston-El, are unable to confirm this, believing the home to be vacant for more than three decades. According to property records, Citicorp foreclosed on the home in March of 1990 when more than $19,000 was owed on the principal of the mortgage. According to property records and a 1992 real estate assessment directory, the home was purchased in May 1990 for $50,000 by a private individual. It has been continuously vacant since, with the exception of the occasional squatter or alley cat.
A number of years ago what remained of the decaying wrap-around porch was removed. More recently, in late 2005 and early 2006, a new foundation was laid in the back two-thirds of the home with original brick remaining towards the front. The rear has been held up from collapse by a weathered series of boards that extend at a 45 degree angle into the ground, nearly extending into the alley.
On May 20 the Department of Community and Housing Development secured the tax deed for just under $38,000. The proposed 2015 property value of the home and land are $157,470. According to a local developer familiar with historic preservation efforts in Anacostia, the cost of a full restoration could run well over a million dollars. “You could spend easy a half-million before you even start on the inside work. It’s leaning. It has to be stabilized. It could need a new roof, you got the porch to restore. It’s not going to be cheap,” the developer said on condition of anonymity.
Carol Goldman, President of The L’Enfant Trust wrote in an email,”I think ‘Big Green’ could well be a six figure rehabilitation project. In the Trust’s model, it would take charitable funding as well as and end user dollars – for example a veterans group, workforce housing group, or for an arts/community/education center.”
Does DHCD have a restoration plan for 1220 Maple View Place SE? Can the house be saved or will it vanish while under the city’s care like 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE?
In order to save the home, the city will have to act quickly, likely selling the property for a $1 and substantially subsidizing its restoration with grants. Through decades of private inattention and a lack of aggressive enforcement of public policies intended to prevent the demolition by neglect of old Anacostia, the razing of the property may be inevitable.
The acquisition of “Big Green” swells DHCD’s portfolio of abandominiums within Anacostia to over a dozen vacant residential and commercial properties. Here’s a look at another agency property in immediate need of preservation and restoration.
1326 Valley Place SE
In 1885 local streetcar president Henry A. Griswold built five detached single family homes as the first development to line Valley Street in Uniontown. To generate interest in his properties, which were built on speculation, Griswold put trees in front of each home and had a photograph taken that he distributed throughout the neighborhood.
In the mid-1930s a room for rent at 1326 Valley Place was advertised for $20 per month in local newspapers. By the late 1930s Earl Von Reichenbach, a prominent local architect, lived at the home with his son and dog. During World War II the address is listed for a GI returning to Washington but otherwise the public record on the home is rather bare. In 1985 the home was listed in a legal notice printed in the Post seeking owners of abandoned property. A private individual appears to have made a claim of ownership to the city but never acquired the deed.
According to property records, 1326 Valley Place was sold by the city in 2005 at a foreclosure auction for $2,044.14 to Darwin Trust Properties, LLC. Darwin Trust’s CEO was incarcerated while the city pursued legal action against the company under the demolition by neglect statute, one of only two times the city has prosecuted the statute. Through the litigation, the city was able to get a court order to let DCRA abate the property.
At some point in recent memory an industrial machine was brought in to cut off the rear of the home as though it was a loaf of bread. This was done in an effort to prevent further deterioration of the room which still has its original banister.
After half a decade of further deterioration, the city finally re-acquired the property in a November 2011 foreclosure sale for just under $12,000. According to a 2015 proposed tax assessment, the house is worth less than $2,500 and the land is valued $125,330 for a total of $127,750. In 2011 the property had a value of $135,900.
Last year the exterior of 1328 Valley Place SE, next door and one of the original five homes on the street, was fully restored, in part through a popular grant program coordinated by the Historic Preservation Office that targets 14 Historic Districts citywide. Given the historic character of 1326 Valley Place, we hope the city finds a way to restore what’s left. The rebirth of old Anacostia cannot occur with the continued neglect and slow death of one of the oldest homes in the city’s first subdivision.
Can public policy save the homes?
DHCD is in the business of acquiring property within the purview and purpose of economic development. Preservation is not within their mission. The condition of 1220 Maple View Place and 1326 Valley Place is a result of decades of collective public and private neglect. As a last resort of preservation, the two properties have been acquired by the city. Now an effective policy or set of policies must be implemented to save these homes. Nothing less than the survival of old Anacostia is at stake.
Previous efforts have been made. For example, to apply pressure on owners of vacant and blighted properties, city legislators passed the “Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Support Act of 2010” which created a Class 3 property tax rate for vacant commercial and residential properties and a Class 4 tax rate for blighted properties. Class 3 properties are taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, Class 4 properties $10 per $100 of assessed value.
In contrast, Class 1, residential real property including multi-family, are assessed at $0.85 per $100, and Class 2, commercial and industrial, are taxed $1.65 per $100 up to the first $3 million of assessed value, and $1.85 for value exceeding $3 million.
This well-intentioned policy may cause vacant and blighted properties to rebound in strong markets such as Bloomingdale, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Eckington, LeDroit Park and Shaw but in Anacostia the market is too soft for a return on investment. The risk in the private market is too great.
As mentioned last month, The L’Enfant Trust is putting more than $600,000 in grant money, pro-bono construction work and material donations towards each of the two homes the organization is restoring in Anacostia. They anticipate selling the homes for $350,000. For years restoration projects have stalled or stopped entirely. The Trust has moved according to its schedule in returning the properties to productive use. Their work is a ready and ongoing model for the city to follow.
Last summer, Aaron Wiener at the City Paper wrote about a property in Park View that shares a similar background as the two properties the city has acquired in old Anacostia.
To save these abandoned properties, he suggests, the “solution could be to bring the identification, acquisition, and disposal of vacant and blighted properties under a single agency with broader powers (and better funding for purchasing properties) than any of the relevant offices currently have. It could be a new budget initiative devoted exclusively to this purpose, or a law making it easier to tackle the legal hurdles to acquiring orphaned properties, or some combination.”
The “piecemeal approach we have now” harms neighborhoods citywide and has slowly destroyed some of the oldest homes in Anacostia. It is a tragedy so many homes have already been lost. Once these homes are gone they only exist in old newspapers, maps, property records, memories and blog posts. We need to do everything to save them while we still can.
What do you think? Should these houses be saved? Can they be saved? We hope so.