“The Old 1899 Post Office is a massive bulwark of the city’s historic charm. Without it, all that frozen bureaucracy on Pennsylvania Avenue would become unbearably oppressive. Besides, it was there first.”
— Wolf Von Eckardt
In 1971, the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque-style building, was slated for demolition, with only its tower to be retained. Alison Owings, a news writer and producer for WRC TV (an NBC affiliate), was distressed at the steady destruction of many of Washington’s historic buildings. She wrote eloquently about losing her sense of history and place through the gradual demolition of the historic cityscape. Owings felt a sense of urgency, a sense that the time had come to look at the city in a new way.
Historic preservation efforts had been mounted in Washington before—including First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s push to save the historic structures lining Lafayette Park in the early 1960s. In 1964, the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts had teamed up to establish the Joint Committee on Landmarks, an advisory group that created a list of DC historic landmarks, ranked by categories of importance. Around this same time, the historic preservation movement began to gain momentum. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed by Congress, forever changing preservation at the local, state, and federal levels, and invigorating grassroots preservation efforts. However, no legal mechanism existed in the District of Columbia to protect buildings and structures designated by the Joint Committee on Landmarks, and there was no organized grassroots group in DC to advocate for their preservation.
Encouraged by Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt, Owings decided that a Washington advocacy group was needed, and she came up with a catchy name, “Don’t Tear It Down” – which legendary New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable praised for its “wonderful, direct, hortatory explicitness in a time of cheesy euphemisms.” Meetings of the new group, the predecessor of the DC Preservation League (DCPL), were held in Owings’ living room on Cortland Place NW in Woodley Park, and in the homes of other early supporters. Early on, Owings joined forces with Terry B. Morton of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose work had led her to conclude that Washington needed a purpose-specific advocacy group. Together, Owings and Morton developed a plan of action and were joined by other National Trust staff, interested professionals, and various like-minded individuals.
Morton focused the group on the fate of the Old Post Office and organized a rally to help save it. On the first day of the second annual Earth Week, April 19, 1971, Morton led a march from the National Trust headquarters in Dupont Circle to the steps of the Old Post Office, where the marchers joined an enthusiastic crowd of about 250 placard-carrying preservationists, historians, planners, architects, and local residents, some of whom wore black armbands. “We don’t want ivory towers—save the whole Post Office!” they proclaimed, urging that the building be spared and that it be converted to new uses to serve the community. It was Don’t Tear It Down’s first street action, and it received a lot of publicity.
At a previously scheduled congressional hearing two days later, a host of distinguished witnesses testified on behalf of preservation, including James Biddle, Senator Vance Hartke, Richard Howland, Charles Conrad, John W. Hill, John Wiebenson, and Arthur Cotton Moore, who later designed the renovation of the spared building. The tide had turned in favor of local preservation.
After Owings was transferred to WNBC in New York, Leila Smith became the first president of Don’t Tear It Down. Smith and numerous volunteers continued the dedication and the idealism from which the city’s first citizen lobby emerged as an organization to protect the heritage, history, and physical landscape of Washington.
The early successes of Don’t Tear It Down were literally monumental. The Old Post Office was saved over a period of years with the help of many people – in particular, Nancy Hanks, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, for whom the building was later named. After the landmark’s fate was secured, Don’t Tear It Down mounted a campaign in 1974 to save the Franklin School, designed by Adolf Cluss and constructed in 1869. Today, the exterior of that building has been sensitively restored, and key elements of the historic interior have been reconstructed. In 2020, the building reopened as Planet Word, a privately-funded language arts museum. Two other important downtown victories were the 1974 litigation that saved the Willard Hotel from demolition (restored in 1986) and the 1985 designation of the Warner Theatre (restored in 1992).
The organization has long enjoyed a dedicated and enthusiastic membership. Early volunteers were excited about a movement that was gaining momentum throughout the country and proud that Don’t Tear It Down was identified as a model preservation organization. The group received national and local recognition, and awards from institutions such as the National Trust, the Historical Society of Washington (now the DC History Center), the American Association for State and Local History, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the mayor and DC Council. Don’t Tear It Down also worked hard to educate the public about the merits of historic preservation, sponsoring lectures, bike tours, and visits to restoration projects and architects’ offices. A series of brochures, the Take One Tour, were distributed on buses as a way for riders to discover significant buildings along different bus routes.
One of the most significant early roles played by Don’t Tear It Down was its partnership with the joint federal-DC preservation office to put in place DC Regulation 73-25, which called for a delay in demolition of landmarked properties. Although an excellent precedent for later legislation, the 1975 regulation was weak as: 1) it provided only for a period of negotiation to determine the fate of threatened structures and, 2) new construction was not reviewed at all. Three-years later, in 1978, the same team of public and private stakeholders advocated for passage of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act (DC Law 2-144), ultimately one of the strongest local preservation ordinances in the nation. Drafted by attorney David Bonderman, the act strengthened the legal protection for historic properties and established the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, an expansion of the original 1964 Inventory created by the Joint Committee on Landmarks. This protective legislation – which also established the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) – is central to the strength of Washington’s historic preservation program. Don’t Tear It Down played an important part in its inception, and DCPL continues to work to ensure its effectiveness.