Georgetown Current

Revised GU Dorm Plans Net Praise From Students

September 3, 2013

By Graham Vyse
Current Staff Writer

Georgetown University has revised its plans for a proposed new dormitory, reducing the number of beds to accommodate a redesign of the building’s exterior, preserve more green space and increase handicap accessibility.

The university plans to build the dorm on a section of campus known as the Northeast Triangle, across from the Reiss Science Building and just downhill from Georgetown Visitation. The revisions of initial building concepts won favorable reviews from more than 50 students at an on-campus forum last Wednesday, according to university officials.

The site of the proposed undergraduate dorm is a rare piece of open space on the campus — valuable as the school seeks to meet a Zoning Commission commitment to house an additional 450 undergraduates by 2017. University spokesperson Rachel Pugh said the school will meet its campus housing requirements, but a 10 percent reduction in the proposed dorm’s bed count — from 250 to 225 — was necessary to address students’ aesthetic concerns.

The initial concepts for the proposed dorm drew sharp criticism from students and alumni when they were unveiled in July. Senior

Jack Appelbaum, director of student space for the Georgetown University Student Association, said the first renderings were visually unappealing, primarily because they bore no resemblance to the rest of the campus architecture.

“It wasn’t awe-inspiring,” he said. “It was inconsistent with the character of the university.”  

But Appelbaum said Georgetown — and its architects at Sasaki Associates — did a good job of incorporating constructive criticism.

“It’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it was before,” he said.

The many changes include an outdoor patio and a roof with green space — features added in reaction to complaints that construction would encroach on one of the remaining green patches on campus.

Appelbaum said the new sketches also include varied styles of windows and a redesigned stone exterior that resembles the university’s iconic White-Gravenor and Copley halls.

School administrators said Monday that they were encouraged by the favorable student reviews.

“We are absolutely headed in the right direction,” said Robin Morey, vice president for planning and facilities management, even as he cautioned that the designs are still a work in progress.

The main goal of the construction is to allow more undergraduates to live on campus, further cultivating a “living and learning” environment for students and reducing the number who live in the surrounding area.

Vice president for student affairs Todd Olson said the new building must marry a traditional exterior design with a modern interior — one with cutting-edge amenities that students will find appealing for decades to come. “We’re committed to meeting both these goals,” he said.

Olson and Morey said the Old Georgetown Board — a panel that approves architectural changes in the Georgetown Historic District — will consider the dorm’s proposed location at its meeting tomorrow. The board had expressed reservations about the loss of green space, and asked the university to provide details about possible alternatives.

The university will solicit feedback on the project from alumni during a webinar next Wednesday. That will be followed by another on-campus student feedback forum, probably in late September. The Old Georgetown Board will consider the latest design proposals in early October, with final approval for the project, including zoning consideration, coming in the spring at the earliest.

This article appears in the Sept. 4 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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City Looks at Former Cemetery Sites

August 28, 2013

By Kat Lucero
Current Staff Writer

After human bones found last September in a coffin beneath a historic Georgetown house were identified as age-old remains, Ruth Trocolli took over the investigation.

As the city archaeologist at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, Trocolli and her team then turned the area into an archaeological site, replacing construction activity. They identified the remains as being an African-American man aged between 25 and 35 years old.

While the surrounding construction continued, the crew encountered more old cemetery shafts near the property’s backyard on the 3300 block of Q Street. Inside pine boxes, they discovered four skeletal remains of African-Americans, with their heads pointed to the west and feet to the east.

Trocolli hypothesized that this area had been an undocumented burial ground for freed slaves before the Civil War. While some parts of her research have yet to be verified, she based her hypothesis on several factors: This hilly section of Georgetown was developed later than its waterfront parts; the neighborhood had a large population of freed slaves; the site is close to a Presbyterian church and its accompanying cemetery, where Civil War soldiers and generals were once buried; and the type of coffin appears to be pre-war style.

“We know that this area was sort of a fringe area at that time. We think that this may have been a burial area outside the former precincts of the Presbyterian church cemetery where slaves, who were freed, were buried because all five of these individuals are African-American,” she said at a presentation last Wednesday at the Mount Pleasant Library about archaeological sites in the city.

Detailing the recent Georgetown excavation, as well as unearthing other mysteries of the city’s past, Trocolli said she has “the best job in the District.”

“[Archaeology] is one of the best ways of understanding the lives of prehistoric people, women, children, the enslaved, tenant farmers and other disenfranchised groups because people leave traces,” she told about 45 attendees.

That’s why Trocolli is also keen on exploring more of what lies beneath a particular house located on 3324 Dent Place that backs to the Q Street burial site. Records show that a renowned freed slave named Yarrow Mamout, who died in 1823, owned and lived in that property.

Along with other historians, Trocolli suspects that “this important man” may be buried in his old property or near it. But the archaeology project is on hold because of a legal dispute over who owns the property.

In addition to these recent Georgetown findings, Trocolli on Wednesday spoke of other old burial grounds in the city. Historic records show that more than 20 active and inactive cemeteries are located throughout the District. But other nondocumented sites, such as the one in Georgetown, she said, may exist below present-day structures — sometimes only in fragments.

The archaeologist explained that when the nascent city ordered the relocation of cemeteries to accommodate its rapid development in the 1800s, not all remnants of burial sites were completely removed.

“Wherever you’re going to have these former cemeteries, you’re almost always still going to have some burials remaining — whether they’re full, partial … or headstones,” she said.

Another example Trocolli highlighted was the discovery of an ornate, cast-iron coffin in Columbia Heights during the construction of an apartment building in 2004. The site was part of Columbian College, the predecessor of George Washington University. The casket was left behind after the entire institution — including its cemetery — relocated to Foggy Bottom.

After the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History acquired this artifact, a team conducted forensic archaeological research that identified the well-preserved body of 15-year-old William Taylor White, a student at Columbian’s preparatory school who died of a congenital heart defect in 1852.

The Smithsonian’s two-year investigation also traced his living relatives, who were informed of the discovery. Trocolli showed photos of two descendants of the boy’s sister — one from the 1940s, the other from 2007 — revealing facial similarities with the Smithsonian’s reconstructive drawing of White based on the remains in the coffin.

“When you look at those faces, my spine still tingles,” she said. “It’s an incredible piece of detective work.”

Another cemetery project Trocolli highlighted involved the Walter Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan. In the 1800s, the site as two burial grounds for Quakers and formerly enslaved people who belonged to the Colored Union Benevolent Association.

According to Trocolli, neighbors knew about an old coffin sticking out in the hillside of the park but didn’t inform the National Park Service, which owns that part of the land. In a later interview, Trocolli described the situation as a “communication problem” between residents and the Park Service, saying federal officials weren’t even aware of the coffin until she told them.

In 2006, an archaeological team led by late Howard University professor Mark Mack performed a noninvasive archaeological survey at the park. So far the group has discovered a variety of burial remnants including exposed remains of at least nine individuals, an exposed coffin, coffin hardware and fragmented and intact gravestones, according to “The Archaeological Investigation of Walter C. Pierce Community Park and Vicinity” report that was released to the public in May.

Completion of the investigation is awaiting additional results from a technical survey that would determine if cemetery shafts exist below this land. In the meantime, the archaeologist told her audience to stay posted on the fate of the park.

Because of these types of high-profile discoveries over the past 10 years, Trocolli said she wants to the D.C. Council to pass legislation requiring developers to stop construction once a crew encounters a cemetery.

“The city has a fairly significant list of laws related to burials. But we don’t have [laws] to protect cemeteries. One of the things I’d like to work on the next few years is getting a city statute where if you do encounter a cemetery in your backyard … the developer has to stop and you have to make arrangements,” Trocolli said. “We need some kind of [statute] for individual burials and cemeteries because this is going to happen again and again and again wherever we have have these former cemeteries.”


This article appears in the Aug. 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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Lawsuit Delays Resolution at Blighted Dent Place Site

August 20, 2013

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

Dent Place residents have spent years living with a vacant, deteriorating house on their Georgetown street. Already considered an eyesore, the home at 3324 Dent suffered another blow in September 2011 when a falling tree crushed its roof. Neighbors have complained about rats, mosquitoes and break-ins. Rabid raccoons are another recent fear, following a reported attack in the area earlier this year.

Developer Deyi Awadallah, who bought the property for $560,000 at a tax sale in May 2012, has promised to address the blight. He won rare approval from the Old Georgetown Board last fall to raze the 1850s home, with board members concluding that the rotted wooden structure was not salvageable. He said at the time that he intended to proceed quickly.

But the process has been stalled by a “clouded title,” Awadallah said in an interview Monday — the previous owner is trying to reclaim ownership. The next court date is Nov. 20, following several delays.

The ownership issue is also holding up planned archaeological investigation of the site, which was home to a freed slave in the early 1800s.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has posted a notice at the property giving the owner until Sept. 2 to either repair or raze the house, which is draped with a torn blue plastic tarp but otherwise generally open to the elements. Awadallah said neither corrective action is likely.

“My lawyer recommended that I not make any further investment in the property until this is cleared up,” he said, referring to the lawsuit. “Until that’s resolved, we can’t do anything. The city’s aware of it. … I told them, ‘If you guys want to knock it down, go ahead.’”

Helder Gil, spokesperson for the regulatory agency, said he was aware of “severely deteriorated conditions” at 3324 Dent Place, but he had no further information about the property yesterday.

Some neighbors have worried that archaeological issues are further stalling the project. The property was once home to Yarrow Mamout, a prominent freed slave who may even be buried in the backyard. (His death in 1823 predates the current house.) The D.C. Historic Preservation Office has planned an investigation since December, but that has been stymied by the question of who owns the property, according to city archaeologist Ruth Trocolli.

“We’ve been promised access [by Awadallah] but until the legal dispute is settled, if we go in there and start poking around, and the original owners secure their claim and they didn’t give us privilege as well, I could just see that being a disaster,” she said.

Trocolli added that the investigation, which would likely take about a week, would be done concurrently with other environmental work on the site, such as soil borings. It therefore wouldn’t delay the project. She would hope to conduct her excavations before the home is razed, however.

The Dent Place property backs to a recently uncovered African-American cemetery on Q Street. Trocolli thinks Yarrow — who, as a Fulani Muslim, went by his first name — could be buried either there or on his own property. Other items from his lifetime may also be buried on the site. “It just seems to me that that possibility needs to be investigated before somebody comes in and fills it up,” said Trocolli.

She added that in some ways, the archaeological investigation could even speed the project. If human remains were found on the property during construction, the project would come to a halt while police ensure that the body isn’t a homicide victim — as happened on Q Street. Delays would be less severe if the remains were found before work began.

Trocolli is speaking about the Q Street cemetery and other aspects of D.C. archaeology at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Mount Pleasant Library, 3160 16th Street.

This article appears in the Aug. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

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