Preservationists praise D.C. efforts as area nonprofits get $1 million

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Vincent Gray

One million dollars from American Express to improve historic D.C.-area sites will certainly help, but experts say that the District, despite its reputation for bureaucratic logjam, has been largely successful over the past three decades in its efforts to preserve historic landmarks and neighborhoods.

"Overall, I think Washington does a pretty good job and probably better than many cities," said Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University's graduate program in historic preservation. "The quantity of landmarks listed is rivaled only by New York, which has a much larger geographic district."

As Partners in Preservation -- a collaboration between American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- announced the winners of its D.C.-area competition, experts reflected on the state of preservation efforts in the District.

Preservationists point to a 1978 law that made it possible for the city to establish historic districts throughout the city.

"It's helped immensely in making Washington a very livable city," said Longstreth, a professor of American civilization.

Ann Hughes Hargrove, a longtime advocate for preservation in the District whom Mayor Vincent Gray recently presented a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work, said that law put D.C. on the right track.

"Once they had the law, the historic preservation people were very cooperative," said Hargrove, who helped preserve the Washington Heights neighborhood.

In part, preservationists say the District's building height restrictions have helped it retain its historic character.

"It's more like a European city than most other cities in the U.S. because we don't have all these tall buildings," said John LaRue, interim director of Preservation Action, a national group. LaRue and Longstreth both said they could not speak on behalf of their organizations, only for themselves.

Altogether, Partners in Preservation gave away $1 million to support a number of projects, from restoring a bell tower at All Souls Church Unitarian to completing the Colvin Run Mill in Fairfax County. The Washington National Cathedral, the winner chosen by online voting, received the top prize of $100,000.

Over 18 months, the cathedral plans to restore its naves, which were damaged by the 2011 earthquake.

Altogether, 16 of the 24 sites that vied for grant money through online votes were located within the District.

At the ceremony to honor the winners, Gray said the money would help the city continue to attract tourists to the District.

Gray later told The Washington Examiner that the prizes were "a tremendous investment."

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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