Former York Theater Building Fails to Achieve Landmark Designation

York Theater, 3641 Georgia, ca. 1920, courtesy Robert K. Headley

Despite  a very positive staff report recommending that the former York Theater building be designated as a historic landmark, the Historic Preservation Review Board decided against the nomination by a vote of 5 against, 3 in favor. Based on the comments of a few of those voting against the nomination, it appeared that the building’s history and importance to the development of the neighborhood was diminished in value simply because they did not think the building achieved a level of aesthetics they were looking for in a former theater building.

From the beginning the nomination was difficult due to the Fisherman of Men Church’s (the current owners) opposition to the nomination.While the nomination was not at odds with the stated goals and plans of the current renovations by the church, their opposition as stated at the hearing tended to boil down to this:

  1. As a property owner, what right did anyone have to tell them what to do with their property;
  2. How would they be impacted in the future by a landmark designation (in some of the comments, rooms for classes or even building higher on the property was mentioned, though no immediate plans are known); and,
  3. The church did not think it was appropriate to support a landmark nomination for a theater that was built in a white neighborhood and catered to white patrons, which in their opinion would glorify segregation.

Honestly, this last point disappoints me. While I have heard others state similar sentiments before, in a city like Washington where segregation once existed, one could argue that no building from the city’s segregate past should be preserved or protected as every building — black or white — was in response to segregation. Sometimes a historic structure is just that. Also, to protect sites that are only significant to one segment of the community and destroy the rest, in my opinion, diminishes the value of even the buildings that remain because they represent an incomplete and biased story.

In the case of the theater, there was nothing sinister on the part of owner Harry Crandall when he built it. He merely wanted a theater in every major section of Washington. Following the York, Crandall built the Lincoln to serve the African-American community on U Street. Unlike the York, the Lincoln achieved landmark status with significant support in the its community.


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15 Comments on “Former York Theater Building Fails to Achieve Landmark Designation”

  1. Cliff Says:

    Sorry, but I think I agree with this. Some buildings have a level of detail and complexity that cannot be reproduced. Those buildings should be preserved, but I don’t see that as the case for this one. I am thankful that we have people in our neighborhood who care enough about preservation and history that they fight to keep it all alive though. I’m also sorry that there are nut cases (who live in Gathersburg, lol) who try to derail progress.

    • Clayton Says:

      I have to disagree with you Cliff. There is no old building with a level of detail and complexity that cannot be reproduced, it just costs more money.

      As for this theater, it tells a very important piece of DC history about the progress of real estate development and prosperity of the time to allow for regular trips to this new form of entertainment. While this may not be aesthetically striking, it was a purpose-built building that, in scale, massing, and materials, blended into its neighborhood perfectly. I would submit that a modern movieplex on that lot would be very incongruous. We have almost no pieces of the original Georgia Avenue commercial corridor left, when in reality the history of the Avenue is just as compelling as any part of DC

      Now we get to wait for the church to sell this building to a developer who reaches their price point and we will get a modern 8 story condo building instead.

      Bravo HPRB

  2. pru Says:

    Well, it’s not the Prettiness Preservation Review Board, so they shouldn’t work to preserve only buildings with high level of detail and complexity. The fact that a building was built in this style, sophisticated or simple, has its significance. Preserving only buildings that we find attractive in 2012 doesn’t serve the purpose of Historic Preservation.
    I agree that it would be devastating if this building were razed and replaced with another condo building.
    I’m sorry that the current owners’ seem to be so ignorant and contemptuous of their responsibility to the neighborhood

  3. Shawn Says:

    Historic preservation would have left us with this building instead of a more productive use of the land that may eventually replace it, such as a more high density development. I don’t think this needed historic preservation either..

  4. Shawn Says:

    Just adding more: I agree that their last point is poor. Not sure if this should have met the standards or not based on the historic preservation laws, but speaking personally I would rather have new retail and dense development than this.

  5. Shawn Says:

    I agree about the aesthetics — the main reason it wasn’t preserved is because it just doesn’t look like a big, grand historic theater like the Lincoln or others. Even looking at the 1920 photo it is not obvious that it is a special or interesting building for a theater.

    I think other theater buildings have a stronger case for preservation, like in Takoma

  6. Zenaslaw Says:

    The Board was disappointed that the ANC 1A did not follow due process in notifying the property owners when the preliminary decision was made to designate the property which froze all outside construction from about 5/12 – 11/29/12 – The Board was disappointed that the ANC 1A hid the fact that the York Theatre was racially discriminatory against Black Afrikans – The Board was disappointed that the ANC 1A did not inform them that the use of the building had more continuous service as a Church than a theatre. The Board sought to remedy the fact that the ANC 1A did not perform its federal duty under 42 USC 2000cc et seq Religious Land Use & institutional Persons Act. Any land use restriction that negatively affects a religious body land owner must be justified by a compelling government interest & any regulation must be in the least restrictive manner – Also a Board Member stated that the building was not a sufficiently appropriate structure to warrant designation – Zenaslaw

    • Clayton Says:

      Zenaslaw – you are factually incorrect on several points.
      There is no due process requirement to notify the property owner of the ANC1A decision to seek historic designation. ANC meetings are public forums and the minutes of the meetings are public documents. If any member of this church’s congregation actually lived in and engaged in the community in which this building is located, the owner would have well known the communities sentiments regarding this matter. Notification was required when the application was received by the Historic Preservation Office and that notification was made.
      Second, the building’s nomination stated clearly that the theater was built in a white neighborhood and served exclusively white patrons. This was not hidden.
      Third, the presentation before the commission noted the year that the building ceased operating as a theatre and that a church had occupied the building three years later and continuously since, therefore stating the board was not informed of this is incorrect.
      Fourth, the board did not seek to remedy any encroachment on religious freedom. This is the most spurious of your statements. The Board stated early and emphatically that they would not even consider religious freedom arguments as they were outside their purview and specifically instructed the church not to reference them. But since you bring this up, and in fact cite the specific federal statue you claim at issue, allow me to do what you did not, actually recite the statute.
      42 USC 2000cc (a)(1) states:
      No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution—
      (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
      (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
      I would submit that since the Fishermen of Men have been exercising their religion in this building, substantially unaltered, for 35 years. This historic designation does not “impose a substantial burden on the [their] religious exercise.” This historic designation would have prevented the church from demolishing this building or altering its exterior without going through a review process. And I will note that does not mean they could never demolish or alter, just that a review would be necessary.
      Finally, you last statement is the only accurate one. The Board ultimately decided that this building did not warrant designation as a historic structure.
      You are entitled to your own opinion and interpretation, but not your own facts.

      • Zenaslaw Says:

        Clayton – were you at the hearing? The Board made its decision on the oral statements – A Board member stated that the application was deficient because it did not inform the Board at the hearing that the property was being used as a Church since 1957 – Present – A board member stated that the fact that the York Theater practiced Racial Discrimination by Exclusion of Black Afrikans was a point intentionally omitted. The U.S. Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land – It States that Government may not take property without Due Process of law -If the ANC 1A does not Prior Notify citizens of their actions – it is acting Illegally & Unconstitutionally
        You demonstrate Superiority – The Church is apart of the Community & has been since probably before you were born
        You miss the point it is possible to practice religion under an Historic Designation – but it limits its growth – At its location with all the Gentrification no one new would visit an old building – then the Church would close – Then the Church could not sell at market rate because of the limit of Historic Designation – The intent of the Historic Designation is to get the Church out of the area
        Secondly ANC 1A & the Board should provide an analysis under the Federal Law & they are not fulfilling their federal duty to uphold the Supreme Law of the Land –
        Historic Designation with the intent to gentrify is not the least restrictive means to further a legitimate governmental purpose by the the least restrictive means – Ethnic Cleansing of Black Afrikans – Zenaslaw

  7. Change GA Says:

    Please, sell and convert into a Room and Board.

  8. […] opposing the nomination on grounds of religious freedom, the Historic Preservation Review Board voted against the nomination with a split decision — despite a staff report from the Historic Preservation Office […]

  9. […] recall that the church is located in the former York Theater building, and that a recent historic landmark nomination of the building failed largely due to the Fisherman of Men’s opposition to the nomination despite a favorable HPO […]

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