By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
Without debate, the D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a bill designed to enable Georgetown’s beloved Blues Alley jazz club to expand by exempting the updated facility from recordation, transfer and property taxes.
The bill is titled “Historic Music Cultural Institutions Tax Abatement Act.” But Ward 2 member Jack Evans, the main sponsor, has openly stated that it’s aimed directly at helping Blues Alley survive in an increasingly competitive music venue environment.
Founder and longtime owner Harry Schnipper had testified that Blues Alley — located at 1073 Wisconsin Ave. — is now competing with venues like the Lincoln and Howard theaters, which are subsidized by the city. Without adding more seats and getting some tax help, he said, the club might have to close or move out of the District.
At an earlier debate on the bill, some council members were skeptical of targeting a specific business for tax breaks, without knowing where or when Blues Alley might use the savings.
“It amounts to an earmark of funds with a very specific purpose on very flimsy information,” Ward 4 member Muriel Bowser said at the time.
But Evans apparently quelled most doubts. The final bill contains numerous caveats — limiting the total tax break to $2 million, for example, and requiring that the targeted “Historic Music Cultural Institution” must close on additional space within five years, remain in the music business and hire District residents for at least 50 percent of new jobs.
The measure is also “subject to appropriations,” which means funding for the tax breaks is not assured. Bowser still voted no, but she was the lone dissenter.
This article appears in the Dec. 4 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.
By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer
The largest restoration project in decades at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery is now finishing up, replacing the roof of the small 1853 chapel designed by James W. Renwick Jr.
The chapel, a national historic landmark located near the front entrance of the hillside cemetery, is the District’s sole example of Renwick’s Gothic Revival church style. The architect is best known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and in D.C., the Smithsonian Institution’s “Castle” building.
At Oak Hill, the nondenominational Renwick Chapel has hosted funerals for the past 164 years, with notable guests including presidents and cabinet members. The chapel has changed little since 1853, aside from replacement of its stained-glass windows in the 1880s, then later upgrades to provide electricity and heating.
“What you see is what it was,” Dave Jackson, the superintendent of Oak Hill Cemetery, said in a recent interview.
But inspection of recent water damage in the chapel’s interior ended up revealing the need for more significant repairs. “Our board said, ‘No more patching; we really got to do this right,’” said Jackson.
The restoration project, estimated to cost more than $200,000, launched this summer to replace the chapel’s mortar as well as its steep slate roof. The new purple roof tiles — the color was selected originally due to its symbolism to multiple religions — came from a quarry in Vermont.
The work, expected to wrap up completely by early next year, also includes repairs and repainting in the chapel’s interior.
“It’s one of the biggest projects for the cemetery in decades,” said architect Robert Tarasovich, who has provided technical consulting.
During the roof replacement, workers discovered a challenge. Without a substantial barrier between the exterior and interior of the roof, the construction shook off plaster decorations from the chapel’s high ceiling. But one gold-painted medallion that fell to the floor came with a surprise: the initials of Oak Hill Cemetery’s founder, William W. Corcoran.
“We didn’t know it was up there,” said Jackson, who intends to preserve and mount the piece. “First of all it was a miracle that it didn’t bust into a million pieces.”
Corcoran, who co-founded Riggs National Bank, was one of D.C.’s most notable philanthropists. His extensive art collection served as the foundation for the Corcoran Gallery — initially housed in the building that is now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Over its history the chapel has hosted a number of significant events. An intimate second funeral for President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie took place there in 1862, according to an Oak Hill newsletter. In 1882, Corcoran arranged for an elaborate ceremony honoring his longtime friend, author John Howard Payne, who was buried in front of the chapel. The building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972.
Today the Renwick Chapel, which can accommodate pews for about 48 people, continues to be used for about 50 funerals each year, along with the occasional wedding or community meeting, according to Jackson.
More information about the cemetery, which is funded through the nonprofit Oak Hill Cemetery Preservation Foundation, is available at oakhillcemeterydc.org.
This article appears in the Nov. 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper. To sign up for The Current's new Wednesday morning email newsletter with a listing of the stories you’ll find in all of The Current’s editions that day, contact email@example.com.
By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer
A rarely available tavern license is up for grabs in Georgetown, and Gypsy Sally’s is first in line for it.
The closing of Saloun, at 3239 M St., opened up one of only six tavern liquor licenses permitted in the historic neighborhood. The licenses are coveted because they allow for more freedom with alcohol sales than restaurant licenses do.
And particularly since the opportunity hasn’t come around for the last 20 years, “it immediately becomes a valued commodity,” said Tom Birch of the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission.
A 1994 law restricted the number of tavern licenses in the Georgetown Historic District to six. Further caps on liquor licenses in the neighborhood are established through a moratorium.
The owners of Gypsy Sally’s, a new Americana music venue at 3401 K St., were quick to recognize the narrow window of opportunity for the new license. Karen Ensor, who runs Gypsy Sally’s with her husband David, said she filed the application the same day she heard news of the license from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration last week.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I want this,’” said Ensor. “I figured out how to do it, got it notarized … and got it to ABRA.”
Ensor said her motivation came from the mountains of paperwork she’s required to deal with for Gypsy Sally’s existing restaurant-class license.
Restaurant licenses require owners to submit proof that 45 percent of their sales come from food, while tavern licenses don’t require a food sales percentage.
“I have to calculate every little lemon and lime and piece of food that’s sold here,” said Ensor. “With a tavern license, you don’t have to do any reporting.”
Smith Point, the restaurant and bar at 1338 M St., was the second applicant for the tavern license, according to Jessie Cornelius, spokesperson for the D.C. alcohol agency. Representatives from Georgetown Events, the larger company that owns Smith Point (as well other D.C. establishments including Surfside, Jetties and the Bullpen at Nationals Park), weren’t available for comment.
The alcohol agency will review applications on a “first-come, first-serve basis,” Cornelius wrote in an email.
The transfer of the Gypsy Sally’s license from restaurant to tavern would require approval from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
According to Ensor, if Gypsy Sally’s wins that approval it has no plans to change its business model of offering both live music and fresh food. “We serve dinner here and we’ll always serve dinner here,” she said.
Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Bill Starrels indicated that his commission would be likely to support such a license change. “Gypsy Sally’s has proven … to live up to how it’s billed itself as a serious music venue that does serve food,” he said. “It appeals to an older demographic and [makes] an excellent addition to the neighborhood.”
According to Starrels, other establishments that expressed interest in the tavern license included the restaurant and bar George, and Malmaison, the restaurant located below Gypsy Sally’s. (The alcohol agency has named only Gypsy Sally’s and Smith Point as formal applicants.)
The remainder of the tavern licenses in Georgetown are held by Rhino Bar, Chadwick’s, El Centro D.F., Modern and Blue Gin, whose license is in safekeeping. The license formerly belonging to Saloun was canceled in September; that M Street space now belongs to a GANT clothing store.
This article appears in the Nov. 20 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.