Posts Tagged HPRB

Lost Anacostia: Big K Demolished

Big K, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Morris Road since 1906. (Old Anacostia)To make way for a pending $50 million dollar affordable housing development in Historic Anacostia, the former Big K Liquor store was razed this past weekend. Falling beyond the boundaries of the Historic District by mere inches, little could be done to save the building, which was more than one hundred and ten years old.

Here’s a look at its history and a short interview with a local resident speaking to his memories and feelings about the neighborhood remnant.

Grocery Store Origins

In 1905 James V. Conway, a merchant in Anacostia acquired a vacant lot at the corner of Nichols Avenue, today Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and Morris Road. The next year, Conway applied for a building permit to construct a two-story structure, a grocery store below and housing above, and a rear shed. For a number of years Conway and his family ran a business and lived on the property.Big K Original Building Permit - 4.4.1906 _ p. 3

In the mid 1920s the grocery store came under new management. Unfortunately, in April 1946 a tragic death befell the lot.

“The neighborhood at Nichols avenue and Morris street S.E. was piecing together the evidence which might explain the death yesterday of its popular grocer, Jacob Denenberg,” read the Evening Star on April 17th. For the past 21 years, Mr. Denenberg, described as “moustached and goateed,” had run a popular store. Across the street from the police station, officers “looked to him for their midnight lunches.” In and out foot traffic was constant. “Tales of neighborhood life were told in his store year after year, tales of birth, death and marriage. The store was a community place and the proprietor knew every one.”

A month before Denenberg had sold his store. He erected a sign letting locals know the grocery would be torn down and a theater erected in its place. There was comfort knowing Denenberg planned to find a nearby building and re-open. However, “inquiries within recent days brought from Mr. Denenberg the opinion that good locations were hard to find.” He was reportedly in bad spirits, thinking he had sold too low, and “was seen leaving a hardware store with a length of window sash rope in his hand.” Shortly thereafter, “his wife found her husband’s body hanging by a rope from a bannister on the first floor of the store building.” He was 50 years old.

For an unknown reason the theater never came. Later that fall, Baby’s Butler Service opened. The short-lived business took out a large newspaper ad promising, “Leading Brand Baby Food and Supplies Delivered Right to Your Door … Once Each Week!” Before the close of the decade the property was once again a market.

Beginning of Big K

On September 30, 1964, Isadore and Gertrude Kushner, applied for a licence from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to operate a wine and liquor store at 2252 Nichols Avenue. The Kushners were a family known in the area, one of their sons was a star football player at Anacostia High School that year.

Evening Star_ 09-26-1964 _ p.14 _ Mark Kushner-page-001

Evening Star, September 26, 1964, p. 14

The Big K Liquor Store was born and for more than sixty years would be a neighborhood feature. It is unclear when the brick wall facing lower Martin Luther King Jr. SE was christened with the dominating “BIG K” mural. Anecdotal evidence suggest it appeared in the mid 1960s.

Upon opening, the Kushners regularly advertised for full and part-time help in the local papers. They ran a delivery service and when new products were released, they participated in city-wide releases. For example, in  June 1969, Big K was one of the nearly 100 liquor stores serving as the official depot for the sale of “Rebel Yell Southern Sour Mash Bourbon.”

A city health inspector visited in fall of 1974, accompanied by a journalist who noted, “cigarette butts cover the floor like leaves in November.” They were given 7 days to clean up. During the holidays of 1975 they ran a series of print ads claiming, “Our National Brands Cheaper Than Other’s Private Labels.” They would be open all day Christmas.

From a variety of sources, including an uncle, Big K served as a neighborhood check-cashing business with long lines regularly forming on Fridays. In order to cash your check, you had to spend a certain portion on beer and wine. Gertrude was well-known by young children and daily drinkers as “Dirty Gertie” for her propensity to short-change customers.

A Washington Informer article from the early 1980s noted, “Lennie Kushner of Big K Liquors is back on the Big K scene after hospitalization. Lennie thanks all those who were concerned about his illness. Butch Perry is no longer at Big K where Bobby, Andy, Noah, David, Benny, Harvey Moore and Ray Brown are working under Anne Kushner’s supervision.”

By the late 1980s, the Kushners leveraged their liquor store and the adjacent properties on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue they had acquired over the years — 2228, 2234 and 2238 — for an $80,000 loan from Riggs Bank to stay afloat.

City Takes Ownership

In the early 2000s, times were time tough for the Kushners. The three residential properties they had acquired next-door to the liquor store were in such a state of neglect and squalor the city pursued legal action. Under Mayor Fenty the “Big K lot” of 2228, 2234, 2238 and 2252, the liquor store, were purchased by the Department of Housing and Community Development for just short of 1 million dollars in 2010.

In subsequent years there have been countless community meetings and public debates over the preservation of the buildings and development of the lot.

In 2012 2228 MLK, the oldest home, was razed. In 2013 plans for disposition of the properties to Chapman Development for $1 began. After the Historic Preservation Review Board denied the development plan’s application, in 2014 the Mayor’s Agent got involved. In early 2017 the development plans secured $50 million in financing and the two remaining historic homes were relocated. This weekend the Big K was finally leveled.

“Just a Liquor Store”

Big K gone in March 2017. (Old Anacostia)I stepped inside the Big K Liquor store once or twice, back in 2009 or so. A co-worker wanted to pick up some Sutter Home Wine. I remember asking the weather-worn man if neighborhood chatter of their being shotguns at the ready behind the counter were true. He was not amused. I once saw the staff go through the lengthy process of padlocking the front door at closing time, a “Lorton style of entry,” as a resident recently referenced. The Kushners were not ones to invest in a modern security system. It finally closed in late 2009 or early 2010.

“I bought a lot of ‘Bumper’s’ of Colt 45 out of there and much, much, much cheap wine,” says Arnold Kieffer, a tinknocker and former juvenile delinquent in and around the neighborhood forty years ago. “Plus the fact it was across the street from # 11 [Police Station] where unfortunately I seemed to end up at far too many times to remember. In short, it was always there, definitely a landmark, can’t imagine going up Nichols Avenue without it being there.”

“Big K is almost like the Shrimp Boat,” said law professor and poet Brian Gilmore who for 7 years worked and wrote about Anacostia, “but it was really just a liquor store.”


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Staff Report: 1234 W Street SE [HPRB, Feb. 26, 2015]


Landmark/District: Anacostia Historic District (x) Agenda

Address: 1234 W Street SE ( ) Consent

Meeting Date: February 26, 2015 (x) New construction

Case Number: 15-204

Staff Reviewer: Tim Dennée (x) Concept

The applicant, property owner W Street Acquisition LLC (with architects Shinberg & Levinas), requests the Board’s review of a concept for the construction of a branch DC Prep charter school. The Board looked at a concept in December and apparently agreed that that design was too large for the available parcel, but the applicant withdrew that application and filed another.

Although not expressly proposed at the moment, a subdivision would be necessary for this project. Such a subdivision would be compatible if the new construction is determined not to be incompatible. The subject parcel consists of seven lots, which would have to be consolidated into one. The largest lot has a pipe stem that runs through the block to V Street and would be used as an access to a basement garage for employee parking. The remainder of the lots, all with W Street frontage, are situated between that lot (Lot 1022) and 13th Street.

The exterior wall materials would include brick, EIFS, fiber-cement panels, and aluminum column covers.

Background At the time the historic district was designated, the subject parcel contained a single house, the former 1242 W Street, and open-air storage for cars. It has since occasionally been used for overflow parking for the church across the street. Since that time, this block of W has lost a total of six historic houses, four that stood where Union Temple now does, one that stood at 1222 W, and 1242 W itself, which was neglected for decades before collapsing in 2009.

In 2007, the Board reviewed a proposal for three-story townhouses on this site. The Board’s principal concern was with the height of those buildings relative to the surrounding two-story historic homes, but after some tweaking of the designs to address these concerns, approved in 2011 a resubmitted concept at that height, but with a single unit on the V Street pipe stem capped at two stories. Another condition was that 1242 W would be reconstructed to break up what would otherwise be an unrelieved W Street frontage of similar three-story buildings. The project did not come to fruition because of the difficulty of obtaining construction financing.

Evaluation The school design is still massed in two sections, but it has been reduced in height, and its plan has been shifted some so that the western end of the building stands nearer the street.

There is no reason that the applicant should not have had its ideal program for essentially two schools within the building. It is simply the case that the parcel was too small to accommodate the original plan. Ideally, such a school would be situated on a deeper site, i.e., deeper than a typical Anacostia house lot, with its program arranged in a deeper central section with wings as necessary to accommodate uses such as gymnasium, cafeteria, library, etc. In other words, more like a traditional school. The revision largely retains the old program by sinking the gyms and cafeterias underground, not ideal for egress, light or cost and perhaps for use, if the gym heights have to be reduced to limit excavation.

While there are some educational, religious and government buildings sprinkled through the neighborhood, few are large, and they are islands surrounded by houses. In this instance, the site’s proximity to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue essentially stretches the avenue’s largerbuilding character into the residential neighborhood and, in so doing, isolates the two little historic houses west of the parcel. Such a large building will tend to dominate the remaining residences, likely reinforcing the erosion of residential uses on the block that commenced with the demolitions mentioned above, the construction of Union Temple and its parking lot, and the church’s acquisition of many of the adjacent homes.

Still, the zoning regulations permit schools in this zone, and this design is a significant improvement over the initial one. The formerly four-story school has been reduced to three, the height limit for residential buildings in this zone. The third story is set back at points, better relating to the diminutive homes of 13th Street. Also crucial is the elimination of the rooftop play area with its tall fencing. The shift of the west wing toward W Street is also an improvement, as it better reinforces the street wall while managing to break up a long elevation. With that shift, and setting off a bit from the west property line, the building relieves the house next door of overwhelming mass and foundation problems resulting from deep excavation.

The previous staff report made reference to the townhouse project the Board approved in 2011 as representing the likely limit of height and bulk for the parcel (as well as a preferable knitting together of the residential neighborhood). The present school design apparently models itself after that residential project, lacking the porches of course, but rendered as repeating three-story three-window-bay units, with even the formerly proposed mansard roof expressed through a color and module change in the siding material. This gives the building some rhythm, but would be relentless were it not relieved by the various façade setbacks and the introduction of some brick. Overall, the size of the building is comparable to the aggregate size of the 23 rowhouses previously approved in concept as sufficiently compatible with the character of the historic district.

A building of this purpose and size, especially with a tall story sunk below grade, reasonably must economize with its exterior materials, yet it is arbitrary to approve for a school project materials that are considered incompatible for other types of projects, unless there is a particular affinity between a building type and a certain material. The Board has typically considered large expanses of EIFS and fiber-cement panels, especially when prominently visible from a street, to be incompatible materials. The 2011 residential project was to use fiber-cement products on the lower two floors, but applied as narrow-exposure lapped boards, interrupted by corner boards, window and door casings and porches. While lapping the boards exposes the thinness of the material, their shadow lines mitigate it. At a larger scale—a bigger building with less relief of the wall plane—fiber-cement panel is flat and featureless except for very narrow joints, although there is some flexibility to play with joint width in a rain screen installation with a primary weather barrier behind the cladding. Even a traditional material like true stucco, which EIFS imitates, is less successful when applied over such a large expanse of a rectilinear mass, because such large, boxy construction does not contain the fine-scaled changes in plane that a stuccoed building would historically have.

The staff seeks the Board’s comments on the compatibility of the materials as much as on the character and massing of the project as a whole.


HPO recommends that, if the Board finds the project not incompatible with the character of the historic district, it approve the concept of a subdivision (consolidation) of the lots and delegate further review of the subdivision to staff. The new construction will presumably return for revision or design development in any case.

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