Preservation options for the WSSC building

Bricks & Mortar

Photo courtesy Rebecca Bennett.
Gray O'Dwyer

Gray O’Dwyer

Historic preservation has been a divisive issue since it became a national movement in the mid-20th century. Passionate defenders of preservation cite events such as the 1963 tear-down  of New York’s historic Penn Station to build Madison Square Gardens as examples of short-sighted victories of graft over culture. Opponents contend that historic preservation prevents progress and puts a stranglehold on development that brings often much-needed economic benefit to communities.

The future of the WSSC building is one of the trickiest types of preservation questions. Built in stages between 1939 and 1964, the sprawling former headquarters of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission occupies more than seven acres on both sides of Hamilton Street near Magruder Park. Since a “For Sale” sign was posted out front in early January, the debate has only grown hotter. What to do with a massive commercial building on a massive lot, right in the heart of a residential community and adjoining a park? Obviously a deteriorating, vacant building is not beneficial to the community, the owners, or the local government, but that is the only point on which all three agree.

Douglas Development has decided that the building they purchased in 2004 “does not suit the company’s current strategy at this time” and that all parties might be better served if someone else took on the project. Representatives of Douglas assert that the building is in better condition after extensive asbestos remediation and will be more attractive to a potential buyer. Some Hyattsville residents are frustrated at the inaction, citing vandalism, theft, loitering vagrants, and other criminal activity that has spilled over into the neighborhood and adjacent park.

Now that the building is on the market again, all previous battles over the future of the WSSC building are brought firmly back to square one. What to do with it? Out of all the options presented by residents, local officials, historic preservationists and developers with industry insight into possible uses, there are three themes which match up neatly with three major trends in historic preservation today:

  • Preservation: Keep the entire building as it exists, and improve the gutted interior for a use compatible with the building in its current form, such as a school, community center, or office building. The parking lot remains a parking lot, and life goes on as before minus the vandals and vagrants.
  • Rehabilitation: A slightly more aggressive approach that would maintain at least the 1939 section in the middle, and include possible changes to the building to accommodate an adaptive re-use of the building that benefits both the community and business interests. Possibilities include apartments, condos, senior housing, a “pod-style” small business incubator, or retail.
  • Regeneration: The most radical approach, building on the existing idea of a “period of significance.” A period of significance is usually defined as the period of time in which a district or a building achieved its essential character, and the current period of significance for historic Hyattsville is 1860 to 1954. This period includes the WSSC Building, but it is well-known that WSSC tore down existing houses for the building and the site is still zoned for single-family residential (R-55). Many argue that Hyattsville’s period of significance should be more narrow, and not include mid-20th century ‘intrusions’ into a late 19th century suburban town. Regeneration might involve partial (retaining the 1939 section only) or total demolition of the existing building to return the site to its historically residential character.

Between residents, local government, and business interests, there are a lot of opinions and a lot of very valid concerns. Hopefully, a reasoned, productive decision can be reached that takes into account the needs of the community now, and in the future.

Gray O’Dwyer is a professional architectural historian and history enthusiast. A native of Richmond, Virginia, she has recently moved to West Hyattsville and is enjoying getting to know her new ’hood. Bricks & Mortar is a new column on architecture and development in the historic city of Hyattsville.