Sunday, July 26, 2009

History and the Legion

Last week, after an unusually lengthy but interesting hearing, local developer Bill Cromley received approval from the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review to demolish the building at 224 N. Fayette Street which was formerly the home of a black-only American Legion post.

Readers may remember that the building was sold at foreclosure in the spring of 2008 to real estate investor Nathan Carter's nephew Christopher. In turn, the younger Mr. Carter sold the structure to Mr. Cromley earlier this year.

The Board, which voted 5-2 to approve the demolition, felt it was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" decision since both sides suggested they might ultimately appeal the resulting decision to City Council.

But the Board did the right thing. After hearing testimony about whether there was historic or architectural significance to the building, as well as information about its troubled association with alcohol-fueled crimes (including murder) in the 1980s and 1990s, the Board concluded that any attempt to adaptively reuse and rehabilitate the poorly-maintained building would mostly destroy any remaining historic fabric.

The Board also accepted Mr. Cromley's reasoning that the structure, which was a temporary building thrown up hastily as an African-American day care facility during World War II, was too small and uneconomical to repurpose and that another example of a World War II child care kit building from the same period is still in place elsewhere in the City.

The Board also took careful note that the City — which sold the building to the Legion in the 1950s — repeatedly declined to exercise its first right of refusal to buy back the building. Just a few months ago the City again bowed out, rejecting Mr. Cromley's offer to pay to move the structure to the Hunter-Miller basketball court.

A couple of observations about the hearing.

First, some who testified against demolition complained that this process was moving too fast and that funding should be sought to save the building.

But these speakers, which included older individuals long absent from the neighborhood, may not have realized that it was an open neighborhood secret for many years that William Thomas Post 129 was in dire financial straits, the result of poor management and declining membership in what was essentially a segregated club. Everyone knew that sooner or later it would come to this.

A group of black investors, including Legion members, had hoped to rescue the building several years ago and had bought up the mortgage note. But even their charitable forebearance was strained when no payments were forthcoming. They presumably didn't have the resources for a complete rehabilitation of the building, and were forced into a reluctant foreclosure in 2008. That's when the Carters stepped in. But they too no longer had the necessary deep pockets for renovation and eventually sold out to Mr. Cromley. The Legion itself moved to Nathan Carter's building on Mt. Vernon Avenue.

The possibility of any other Alexandria group now coming up with $1.1 million — the current assessed value of the property — to buy out Mr. Cromley seems remote. Certainly the City is no shape to find capital, renovation and operating funds to add another building to its roster of historic properties, which themselves are suffering from deferred maintenance.

Speaking of assessments, it's interesting that the City tax assessors dropped the value of the building to only $1,000 in 2008 once the property was sold to Mr. Carter. Nearly all of the $1.1 million assessed value is derived from the value of the land. So at least some City bureaucrats judged it was a tear-down, even as Planning & Zoning staff were furiously trying to rally the community to save it.

The testimony that made the Growler's furry ears perk up was the admission of Black History Museum director Louis Hicks that he and his staff knew nothing about the history of the building until Mr. Cromley conducted his research.

That's remarkable. Mr. Hicks stated at the BAR hearing that "Our museum exists here in the city as a means of preserving black history for the city." Yet the museum has no research or information about the American Legion, which a few speakers argued was an important African-American institution? Mr. Hicks says the museum is "playing catch-up," but over the last twenty years the City has poured millions of dollars into the Black History Museum.

Is it time to ask if this Museum is really functioning professionally as it should? Or is it nothing more than a home for the mostly departed Parker-Gray alumni association and a stopping place for other institutions' traveling exhibits?

We might also ask why the Museum director is defending a building for which many current residents have bad memories, instead of working to honor the most distinguished members of the community — people like Samuel Tucker, who organized the 1939 Barrett Library sit-down strike. His house on Princess Street has never been singled out for recognition.

Clearly, some elderly members of the African-American community who testified last Wednesday feel a yearning for the past and pain that the neighborhood has changed so dramatically. But claims that there are no traces that they ever lived here are overstated. Institutions and churches like Ebenezer Baptist remain as monuments to the indomitable faith of the historic community.

Remarkably, much of the pain expressed at the hearing referred less to the Legion (which many respectable people shunned in later years) and more to the City's demolition of the old Parker-Gray schools years ago, which came up repeatedly.

Yet it is the Madison developer, Trammell Crow, not the City and the Black History Museum, who offered to pay for a Virginia Highway Marker to designate the site of the former high school and who hired local historian Sarah Becker to research and process the state application.

And it is Ms. Becker who — using the same local resources available to Mr. Hicks and his staff — finally dated (1933) the connection between Charles Houston and the Parker-Gray Schools. Without that connection to the eminent civil rights attorney in Brown v. Board of Education, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources would not otherwise approve a Highway Marker for a vanished school, no matter how great the nostalgia.

Much can still be done to honor the past in our neighborhood. But it's time to take a hard look at the outputs of the Black History Museum. And it's time to let go of the Legion. Preserving it doesn't make economic or historic sense.