To be delivered to City of Alexandria, VA Mayor and City Council:
Historic preservation is facing a grave threat. The historic integrity of the Justice Hugo L. Black house and open space — a certified historic landmark covered by a preservation easement with the Commonwealth of Virginia to protect the house AND open space — is proposed for massive demolition and reconstruction on the site. The Board of Architectural Review has approved a project that would demolish historic elements of the home and diminish cherished open space in Old Town Alexandria. The City Council must REJECT this plan and uphold Virginia and Alexandria’s preservation laws Failure to do so will result in long-term and extensive damage to historic preservation in Alexandria and throughout Virginia.
- The Justice Black Property, constructed circa 1800, is a Certified Historic Landmark. The Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission certified the Black house and gardens as a “principal historic site — of state-wide and national significance,” largely because, for decades, it was the home of renowned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black.
- The National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey celebrates the house as an “outstanding example of the Federal ‘row’- type buildings in Alexandria” that “has fortunately been spared the fate of suffocation. By precept and example it stands flush with the street, but with its extensive grounds and breathing space preserved to this day.”
- Upon the 50th anniversary of Justice Black’s death, September 25, 2021, the property would become eligible for designation as a National Historic Landmark, the highest preservation listing, but not if its historic integrity were lost by approval of the proposed additions and demolitions.
- Justice Black purchased the property in 1939, two years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lived there until his death in 1971.
- Justice Black is regarded as one of the most influential Supreme Court justices in American history. Highlights: (a) He believed the First Amendment is the cornerstone of liberty, and Freedom of Speech as the core of the First Amendment. (b) In 1964, after 10 years of foot-dragging by the exponents of segregation, Justice Black wrote an opinion that put an end to the denial of African American school children’s right to an equal education in Virginia and the nation: “The time for mere ‘deliberate speed’ has run out, and that phrase can no longer justify denying these Prince Edward County school children their constitutional rights to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in other parts of Virginia.”
- Justice Black and Mrs. Elizabeth Black EXECUTED AN EASEMENT ON THE PROPERTY to preserve in perpetuity the open space, including the house and grounds, under the Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966. This was the second ever easement in the history of Virginia and the first in Alexandria. In 1973, Black’s widow and heirs reiterated the easement.
- The Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966 PROHIBITS the diversion of open space protected by the Act unless five specific conditions are met. NONE OF THOSE FIVE CONDITIONS HAS BEEN SATISFIED in this case, nor has there been any attempt to do so.
- Justice Black’s property is subject both to applicable state and local laws. The city has a responsibility to consider the easement granted under the Virginia Open Space Land Act, as well as the Alexandria Historic Preservation Ordinance; the Historic Preservation and Open Space Citywide Chapters of the Alexandria Master Plan; and other applicable ordinances.
The proposed modifications and additions would further erode the historic character of the property and of the city and should be denied. It bears repeating that if the City Council were to approve this project, the impact would be long-term and extensive damage to historic preservation in Alexandria and throughout Virginia.
Therefore, we, the undersigned, respectfully request that the Alexandria, VA City Council overturn the ruling of the BAR and stop this project from moving forward.