“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 laid out in 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 loss of the historic cityscape. Owings felt a sense of urgency, a sense that the time had come to look at the city in a new way. Historic preservation efforts had been mounted in Washington before—notably Jackie Kennedy’s push to save the historic structures lining Lafayette Park in the early 1960s—but there was no organized movement to curtail the pervasive destruction. Encouraged by Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt, Owings decided that an advocacy group was needed. She came up with a catchy name, “Don’t Tear It Down,” which legendary New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable praised for its “wonderful, direct, hortatory explicitness in a time of cheesy euphemisms.”
Meetings of the new group, the predecessor of the DC Preservation League (DCPL), were held in Owings’ living room on Cortland Place, NW, and other early supporters’ homes. Early on, Owings joined forces with Terry B. Morton of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose work had led her to conclude 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 organized a rally to help save it. 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 placard-carrying preservationists, historians, planners, architects, and 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.
At a previously scheduled congressional hearing two days later, a host of distinguished witnesses testified on behalf of preservation, including 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 tide had turned in favor of preservation.
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 idealism from which the city’s first citizen lobby emerged as an organization to protect Washington’s heritage, history, and physical landscape.
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 was later named. After the landmark’s fate was secured, Don’t Tear It Down mounted a campaign to save the Franklin School (1974). Today, the building is leased to a private museum. Two other important downtown victories were the 1974 litigation that saved the Willard Hotel from demolition (restored in 1986) and the 1985 designation of the Warner Theatre (restored in 1992).
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 glitch) and the Old Masonic Hall/Julius Lansburgh’s Furniture Store (restored and adaptively re-used 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, the 1975 regulation nonetheless 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. Three years later, in 1978, the same public/private team advocated for 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. As drafted by David Bonderman, a young attorney at a local firm, the act strengthened the legal protection for historic properties. It 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 work to ensure its effectiveness.
The organization has long enjoyed a dedicated and enthusiastic membership. Early volunteers were excited about a movement that gained 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, US Department of the Interior, and the mayor and city council. Don’t Tear It Down also worked hard to educate the public about the merits of historic preservation, sponsoring 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.