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Preservationists Name ‘Endangered’ City Sites, including Georgetown Cemetery and Kalorama Embassy

By Katie PearceCurrent Staff Writer

A crumbling African-American cemetery in Georgetown and a vacant embassy building in Sheridan-Kalorama are among the six properties highlighted on this year’s “Most Endangered Places in Washington” list.

The D.C. Preservation League has released the list annually since 1996 to publicize notable sites in the city threatened by neglect, demolition or alteration. The league says this strategy has achieved some success — several “Most Endangered” properties from years past have since been restored or preserved, including the Howard Theatre and the D.C. War Memorial.

For the 2012 list, all but one of the sites are located in Northwest D.C., including two in Georgetown.

The Mount Zion Cemetery is tucked behind an apartment complex in northern Georgetown, adjacent to the better-known and -maintained Oak Hill Cemetery.

Technically, the property at 27th and Q streets comprises two burial grounds — the original Old Methodist Burying Ground, which dates back to 1808, and the Female Union Band Cemetery, established in 1842.

The site, recognized as one of the oldest remaining African-American cemeteries in Washington, is “now in a state of disrepair,” according to the preservation league. “[H]eadstones are broken or missing, vegetation grows unchecked, and the sign marking the cemetery has disappeared.”

A board of trustees, however, hopes the preservation league’s attention will help speed its planned restoration and improvements at the memorial park. “We feel like it’s going to enable us to proceed with seeking grants and other sources of funding to develop a vision for the area and try to restore it to its historical purpose of honoring our deceased,” said board member Neville Waters, who has ancestral links to the cemetery.

The cemetery started out as a burial site for both whites and blacks. The church that is now Dumbarton United Methodist purchased the property in 1808, reserving three-quarters of the land for white burials and the rest for African-Americans, mostly slaves, according to a National Park Service document. In 1842, the Female Union Band Society — a cooperative benevolent society of freed black women — purchased a part of the property.

Around 1850 began a process of disinterments of white burials at the cemetery, most significantly to the new Oak Hill Cemetery next door. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the oldest black congregation in D.C., acquired the lease to the property, and black burials continued there through 1950.

After that, the Park Service document notes, the cemetery suffered from neglect until the 1970s, when a group called the African-American Bicentennial Corp. took over. The group blocked a town house development at the site and helped establish it as both a local and national historic landmark.

Today the Mount Zion church continues to fund upkeep of the cemetery, according to Waters. Church representatives were unavailable for comment.

Ownership of the land is complicated, though — and according to several sources has prevented proper restoration and maintenance in recent years.

Kimberly Bender, who writes a blog called “The Location” about the hidden histories of D.C. properties, started researching the cemetery last year, after a friend took her there for a visit. “It was so neglected it seemed to scream out,” she said.

Bender, who was volunteering for the D.C. Preservation League at that time, sparked more interest in the site through a post on her blog and a piece for WAMU. She also nominated the property to this year’s “most endangered” list.

The ownership complications at the cemetery have played out through an extended legal battle, which the D.C. Superior Court is supposed to decide soon, according to attorney Richard Gibbs.

The case has slowed the Mount Zion Church’s attempt to re-establish a formal lease for the property, according to Gibbs. He said ultimately the goal is for a single board of trustees to represent both cemeteries.

Over in Sheridan-Kalorama, the preservation league is concerned about the long-vacant former Thai embassy building at 2300 Kalorama Road.

The Royal Thai Government constructed the building in 1920 and kept its embassy there until 1993, when it moved to new quarters on Wisconsin Avenue. Ever since then, neighbors say, the unoccupied building has been disintegrating.

“It is our hope that by bringing attention to the condition that the Thai government will, in fact, repair and renovate it,” said Sally Berk of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historical Association, the group that nominated the site as “endangered.”

A representative of the Royal Thai Embassy, who spoke anonymously, said the embassy does have plans for the building’s future but couldn’t provide further details.

The building is historically significant, Berk said, not only because of its architecture and design pedigree but also because it was the first “purpose-built” embassy in the area — most embassies before it were converted mansions.

The embassy building was designed by James Rush Marshall of the famed Hornblower and Marshall firm, best known for creating the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Its concrete walls and balusters were the craftwork of the John Earley Studio, which also designed many features at Meridian Hill Park.

Berk said concern rose several years ago when a part of an Earley-designed baluster fell off, and the Thai government “simply built a brick wall that is just completely insensitive to the architecture of the property.”

The other properties that made it onto the D.C. Preservation League’s “Most Endangered” list for 2012 are:■ Alexander Crummell School, 1900 Gallaudet St. NE, built in 1912 as an elementary school for African-American children. Most recently Mayor Vincent Gray targeted the site for redevelopment as a bus parking facility, leading to community protests and a lawsuit.■ Bond Bread Factory at 1146 Georgia Ave. NW, built by an experienced bakery architect in 1929 and now owned by Howard University, which plans to redevelop it.■ Washington Canoe Club, at 3700 Water St. on the Georgetown waterfront, built in 1904 and deemed unsafe for occupancy in 2010 as ownership complications continue.■ Watchman’s Lodge and Tower, on Donaldson Place in Fort Reno Park, built in 1904 and nominated for the list by the D.C Historic Preservation Office amid concerns about a need for maintenance and roof repairs.

This article appears in the Dec. 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.