“The Old 1899 Post Office is a massive bulwark of the city’s historic charm. Without it, all that frozen bureaucracy on Pennsylvania Avenue would become unbearably oppressive. Besides, it was there first.”
— Wolf Von Eckardt
In 1971 the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, a magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque-style building designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, was slated for demolition–all except for its tower–to allow completion of the neoclassical Federal Triangle of 1928-38. In part to save this Washington landmark, Don’t Tear It Down, an activist lobbying group, was founded that year.
Alison Owings, a news writer and producer for WRC, was distressed at the steady destruction of many of Washington’s historic buildings. She wrote eloquently about losing her sense of history and place through the gradual destruction of the cityscape. Owings felt a sense of urgency, a sense that the time had come to look at the city in a new way. Armed with little more than encouragement from legendary architectural critic Wolf Von Eckhardt, and an idea for a catchy name (praised by legendary New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable for its “wonderful, direct, hortatory explicitness in a time of cheesy euphemisms”), Owings thought that an advocacy group was needed. Meetings in Owings’ living room on Cortland Place, NW and other members’ houses gave birth to Don’t Tear It Down, the predecessor of the DC Preservation League (DCPL). Early on, Owings was referred to Terry B. Morton at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose work had led her to conclude similarly that Washington needed a purpose-specific advocacy group. Together, Owings and Morton developed a plan of action and were joined by other National Trust staff, interested professionals, and various like-minded souls.
Morton focused the group on the fate of the Old Post Office and suggested a rally to help save it. A list of city lovers and incipient preservationists was developed and invited to attend. On the first day of the second annual Earth Week, April 19, 1971, Morton led a march from National Trust headquarters to the steps of the Old Post Office, where the marchers joined an enthusiastic crowd of about 250 well-mannered placard-carrying preservationists, historians, planners, architects, and local residents, some of whom wore black armbands. “We don’t want ivory towers-save the whole Post Office!” they proclaimed, urging that the building be spared and that it be converted to new uses to serve the community. It was Don’t Tear It Down’s first street action, and it received a lot of publicity.
Within two days, Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) convened a previously scheduled hearing of the Senate Public Works Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds to determine the Federal government’s overall preservation policy as well as the fate of the Old Post Office. Among those testifying on behalf of preservation were James Biddle, Sen. Vance Hartke, Richard Howland, Charles Conrad, John W. Hill, John Wiebenson, and Arthur Cotton Moore, who later designed the renovation of the spared building. The force for preservation had become entrenched.
After Owings was transferred to WNBC in New York, Leila Smith became the first president of Don’t Tear It Down. Smith and numerous volunteers continued the dedication and the idealism from which the city’s first citizen lobby emerged as an organization to protect the heritage, history, and physical landscape of Washington.
The early successes of Don’t Tear It Down were literally monumental. The Old Post Office was saved over a period of years with the help of many people, in particular Nancy Hanks, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, for whom the building is now named. After the landmark’s fate was secured, Don’t Tear It Down mounted a campaign to save the Franklin School (1974). Today, the exterior of that building has been sensitively restored, although a proper reuse for the building remains elusive. Two other important downtown victories were the litigation (1974) that saved the Willard Hotel – which was close to demolition – and its subsequent restoration (1986) and the designation (1985) of the Warner Theatre (restored 1992).
Throughout the 1970s numerous members took on the management of the organization either individually or as “co-presidents”. Among them were Leila Smith (1971-1973), Carol (Bickley) Aten (1973-1975 and 1977-1978), Ward Bucher (1974-1975), and Rob Low (1974-1975), Nancy (Shirk) Carson (1975-1976).
In the early days of the organization, litigation was an important tool for the delay of demolitions. Through prudent use of temporary restraining orders, the group was able to buy time to consider the status of potential landmarks. Don’t Tear It Down is credited with establishing precedents with several nationally important legal battles, notably involving the Ouray Building (demolished 1984 through a special merit loophole) and the Old Masonic Hall/Julius Lansburgh’s Furniture Store (restored and adaptively reused in 2001).
One of the most significant early roles played by Don’t Tear It Down was its partnership with the joint federal-DC preservation office to put in place DC Regulation 73-25, which called for a delay in demolition of landmarked properties. Although an excellent precedent for later legislation, nonetheless, the 1975 regulation was weak as: 1) it provided only for a period of negotiation to determine the fate of threatened structures and, 2) new construction was not reviewed at all. DTID Vice President David Bonderman, a young attorney with Arnold & Porter, spearheaded the drafting of a new preservation law, and three years later, in 1978, the same public/private team affected the passage of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act (DC Law 2-144), ultimately one of the strongest preservation ordinances in the nation. The act strengthened the legal protection for historic properties and established the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, an expansion of the original 1964 Inventory. This protective legislation is central to the strength of Washington’s preservation program. Don’t Tear It Down played an important part in its inception, and DCPL continues to guard and evaluate its effectiveness.
The organization has long enjoyed a dedicated and enthusiastic membership, larger at some times than others. Early on, volunteers were excited about a movement that was gaining momentum throughout the country and proud that Don’t Tear It Down was identified as a model preservation organization. The group received national and local recognition and awards from institutions such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Historical Society of Washington, the American Association for State and Local History, U.S. Department of the Interior and the mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. The education component of the organization’s mission was strong from the start and throughout the early years, Don’t Tear It Down sponsored lectures, bike tours, and visits to restoration projects and architects’ offices. A series of brochures, the Take One Tour, was distributed on buses as a guide to significant buildings along the routes.
To raise money, the Great Preservation Auction became an annual event for a number of years. Hundreds of supporters attended each auction and bid on a large number of donated items. A non-profit subsidiary of Don’t Tear It Down was formed to apply for and receive grants. In 1978, a full-time salaried Executive Director, Betts Abel, was employed and the Board of Directors was expanded.