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Del Ray Historical Preservation Plan in the Works

Plan aimed at preserving Art Deco buildings and creating a pattern book for home modifications.

Alexandria’s Department of Planning and Zoning is proposing the development of a Del Ray Historic Preservation Plan as part of its work for fiscal year 2014, according to the Del Ray Citizens Association newsletter.

The plan is aimed at preserving the mid-20th century commercial Art Deco buildings on Leslie Avenue by creating a new National Register Historic District and potentially expanding the existing boundaries of the existing Town of Potomac Historic District to include Art Deco buildings on Mount Vernon Avenue.

The Town of Potomac Historic District was established in September 1992, honoring the Town of Potomac that incorporated in 1908 when several subdivisions merged.

The area was developed beginning in 1894 as the communities of Del Ray, St. Elmo, Mt. Ida, Hume and others popped up following a grid plan independent of that of Old Town Alexandria.

A planned community, Potomac’s proximity to Washington, D.C. made it a popular place for employees of the U.S. government to live. Additionally, the area was located adjacent to the massive Potomac Yard of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, making it convenient for railroad workers and travelers alike. The separate communities united to form the Town of Potomac, which had its own mayor, council and public safety services. In 1928, the town had 2,355 residents. 

Potomac was annexed by Alexandria in 1930, bringing its existence to an end.

According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination application:

The Town of Potomac Historic District includes most of the former town of Potomac (the subdivisions of Del Ray, Del Ray 11, St. Elmo, Abingdon, Hume and parts of Mt. Vernon), which retain a large concentration of residential architecture from the 1890s through 1941. Residential styles represented include predominantly Foursquares, Bunglows and Colonial Revival buildings, as well as Folk Victorian, modified Queen Anne, Tudor Revial and two Mediterranean Revival buildings. Five blocks on Mount Vernon Avenue, where commercial buildings are now concentrated, include examples of Art Deco and Moderne as well as many vernacular two-story brick commercial buildings built with apartments above stores. Most of these date from the 1920s. Two churches (one of which was mail ordered) and the 1920s parish house of another represent religious themes in the town's development. The town's combined Fire Station and Town Hall, built in 1926 to consolidate municipal functions and provide a meeting hall for social gatherings, represents civic and social history.

... While changes have occurred in the area of the Town of Potomac through its history, it still retains much of the ambience of its heyday. Most of the original residential sections are intact, retaining the houses and the open streetscapes with large trees, big backyards and 15-foot setbacks. Buildings which were important to the town’s history remain, including its churches, many early commercial buildings, and most important of all, the Potomac Fire Department and Town Hall.

Today, the Town of Potomac Historic District is bordered by Commonwealth Avenue to the west, Route 1 to the east, E. Bellefonte Avenue to the south and Ashby Avenue to the north. It includes 690 contributing structures and 1,840 acres.

Find out if your home or favorite business is a contributing structure 

The preservation plan also calls for creating a residential pattern book for new construction and alterations to structures within the Town of Potomac Historic District.

Al Cox, architect and manager with the Historical Preservation Section of Planning and Zoning told the DRCA:

As Del Ray has continued to gain in popularity and property values have increased, there is economic interest in constructing or expanding the residential properties to their maximum development envelope. We have already seen this development pressure lead to a loss of character-defining architectural features, as well as the total loss of contributing buildings through demolition. I believe that a pattern book could provide proactive design guidance to homeowners and builders, without the regulation and expense of a local design review board. …a National Register district is only honorific and would enable these properties to obtain state and federal rehabilitation tax credits, so a district is not generally opposed by the property owners.”

Cox gave a presentation about the Art Deco architecture in Alexandria, including classic forms and late-type Streamline Moderne styles in Del Ray, during November’s Del Ray Historical Preservation Conference.

Cox cited the success of the event, which drew more than 150 attendees, as a sign of interest in preserving Del Ray’s historic buildings.

Watch a video of Cox’s presentation at the Del Ray Historical Preservation Conference
Check out this DIY Del Ray photo essay of Del Ray’s Art Deco buildings

The city would likely need to hire a consultant to complete the plan, which could be completed in about a year with assistance from the DRCA.

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Autoexec.bat May 01, 2013 at 12:14 PM
Uh oh. Better get rid of your chain link fences now or pretty soon they'll be "historic."
Tom May 01, 2013 at 12:46 PM
Two points: Mr Cox states it would provide "design guidance to homeowners and builders, without the regulation and expense of a local design review board", but we all know this is the first step to getting a board, (another great unintended consequence). Second: isnt it great that the two existing boards are staffed by appointed members (not voted in), most of which DON'T live in the historic districts the preside over! Be careful what you wish for, my friends.
Blane Adcock May 01, 2013 at 02:20 PM
Anyone else think this is a reaction to the Mayor and the C.A.V.E. people being told to pound sand?
Margo Heegeman May 01, 2013 at 02:38 PM
The Art Deco Society and Linda Lyons with the Society should be able to help. They do tours highlighting Art Deco/Moderne and include Del Ray.
Jill Erber May 01, 2013 at 02:42 PM
Don't miss this point: "The preservation plan also calls for creating a residential pattern book for new construction and alterations to structures within the Town of Potomac Historic District." Some might equate "historic district" with "quaint", even feeling pride in the designation. However, here is how I see what is happening: When you want to alter your property, the plans will not only be analyzed for adherence to zoning regulations (footprint, setbacks, etc.) but to others’ vision of what your property should look like. You may not even know – or agree with – these others. But they will design your home, not you. Before anyone says that this is the trade-off for living in our special community, and "If you don't like it, then move out," let me reiterate that I own my property. My neighbors do not own it. Neither does the City. As a property owner in good standing, I assume that I should be able to live in a home of my choosing as long as I abide by the law. Simply expanding the law, then, to incorporate style guidelines is a gross violation of that natural assumption. Gentle phrases like, "proactive guidance to homeowners" disguise the fact that this is a proposal for design by taxpayer-funded committee. Those of you who live within the boundaries should be VERY cautious about allowing this to move forward.
Greg Ruff May 01, 2013 at 04:46 PM
Well said, Jill. Couldn't agree with you more. In my opinion, one of the great things about living in Alexandria, and Del Ray in particular, is that we are free to do what we choose with our homes, not bound by Homeowner Association rules like so many communities, or special architectural districts. We can paint our homes any color we like, design them with any architectural elements we like, put a pink flamingo on the lawn, whatever.
Linda Kelly May 01, 2013 at 05:38 PM
I wholeheartedly agree. If I had wanted to live in a planned community, I would have purchased property in one. Compliance with zoning regulations in Alexandria is difficult enough without this additional albatross.
Kristine E May 01, 2013 at 06:20 PM
Completely agree with the comments above. My husband and I purposely purchased our townhouse last year in Del Ray because we knew we would not be subject to the control of any homeowners' association or other anti-property rights groups.
Liz Davis May 01, 2013 at 06:46 PM
This is one of the reasons I live in Del Ray,not Old Town.If this comes,I'm gone.
Liz Davis May 01, 2013 at 06:58 PM
However.........since my house and the townhouse across the street from it were both houses of prostitution,if my house is designated part of the official red light district,I will stay.
sp May 01, 2013 at 07:34 PM
I think people are missing the point - most of the neighborhood is already a historic district. They aren't talking about introducing review boards or or new regulations. Al Cox said "a pattern book could provide proactive design guidance to homeowners and builders, without the regulation and expense of a local design review board." The goal of a Pattern Book is not regulation, but suggestions, ideas. A Pattern Book can help builders, homeowners, architects, etc. understand the details and principles of design that exist in a neighborhood and give it its distinct character. It becomes a kit of parts or catalog of design elements that homeowners and builders CAN draw from. It’s optional, NOT a regulation.
Matt F May 01, 2013 at 07:58 PM
Jill: I agree with you 100%. Sadly though, private property rights are the ultimate target of the political left and busybody neighbors everywhere. Your problem is the statement: "...let me reiterate that I own my property. My neighbors do not own it. Neither does the City. As a property owner in good standing, I assume that I should be able to live in a home of my choosing as long as I abide by the law." The idea that you could "own" anything is an anathema to the nosy busybody. It's not "yours" - "it's the community's". For some historical perspective, Karl Marx wrote the following in his manifesto: "Modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." It's not something that will happen overnight, but it will be death by 1,000 cuts. Silliness like this is just one more nick. Lastly, since you published this comment in your real name and you are a productive business owner, do not be surprised if the authorities show up for some unscheduled building, fire, and health code inspections.
amy lu May 02, 2013 at 02:50 PM
I agree with you sp, but with a minor modification: The handful of folks who've posted with warning comments of a Pattern Book being a toehold into abridging their property rights, miss the point. They don't realize a Pattern Book does not regulate your (sic) 'property' - Alexandria already has those zoning regulations well in place. They mayn't realize that, if the structural modification they desire does not require action by the Board of Zoning appeals, then they may proceed with obtaining a building permit and construct whatever addition they want. Be it tasteful or architecturally incompatible with their neighbors. They don't realize there are plenty of folks who prefer to adapt/expand their building envelope to reflect "the existing pattern of development" and a Pattern Book, like the one the CIty of Norfolk* made available, helps them view/dream those changes without needing to hire a professional first. A Pattern Book can open eyes to new dimensions. * "The Pattern Book tradition is to help builders, home owners & architects understand the elements & principles of design that help create the distinct character & image of each distinct district." "They generally have 3 sections: Overview; Community Patterns; and Architectural Patterns. Occasionally they include a Landscape Pattern section. A 'Pattern Book of Norfolk' follows this same structure & includes principles for building placement & massing for a variety of conditions & lot types."

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