A little bit of serendipity and a lot of appreciation for the city’s historical heritage will save a piece of DC’s history. Well that and a still elusive $20,000.
The historic mural, painted on plaster inside an old Mount Vernon Triangle home could have been lost forever–as is the often the way with the interiors of the District’s historic properties–instead the plan is for a professional conservation team to remove it so it can be displayed at the new museum for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW).
How that came to be is a success story for collaboration among government, private developers and historical organizations.
In 2013 BlackRock Holdings, Inc. bought the historic home at 415 M St. NW with plans to convert it into a multi-family residence with an addition in the side yard. The previous owner had discovered and done a basic restoration of a mural painted some 90 years ago on an interior wall by a small synagogue–likely composed of just a few eastern European Jewish families.
“On the one hand we knew that a proper restoration of the nearly 160 year old building would necessitate a full gut of the existing structure. On the other hand we knew such drastic renovation and repair would destroy this beautiful and historic mural of which we were now de-facto custodians. None of us wanted to be a party to that kind of destruction,” said Patrick Moran, managing partner of BlackRock Holdings, in an email to District Source.
While Moran and his team began researching what it would take to save this piece of history, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office (HPO) was spreading the word that 415 M St. NW was going to be renovated. HPO reviewed the new owners’ plans to renovate and add onto the historic home on M Street.
Thanks to HPO, JHSGW realized the mural could be at risk now that the house was up for redevelopment.
“We knew that [the previous owner] had sold the house, but only became aware of the mural’s current situation when we received an email from D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office asking us if we were aware of the mural and plans for the 415 M’s renovation,” explained Zachary Paul Levine, curator for the JHSGW, in an email to District Source.
The practice of painting murals in synagogue interiors was brought to North America by Jewish immigrants from Poland and Lithuania in the 20th century, according to Levine.
“Nearly a century after those communities settled here, few of these types of murals still exist,” he explained.
Levine reached out to Brendan Meyer, a staff member at HPO, to ask for an introduction to BlackRock Holdings. From there the developer and society worked together to formulate the current plan to save the mural.
“Brendan Meyer with DC’s Historic Preservation Office deserves special mention here for facilitating this whole preservation effort,” said Moran. “Without all of Mr. Meyer’s many efforts this story would probably have a much different ending.”
JHSGW has partnered with Architectural Preservation Services, a Baltimore-based conservation firm, to remove the mural, which is painted on plaster that is attached to a wood lath attached to a brick wall. That effort to remove and then restore the mural will run at least $20,000, so the society is in the midst of a fundraising campaign.
“I think this effort is the result of what happens when the city, developers, and historical organizations communicate and work together like we should. In the end, we all want to preserve this unique piece of D.C.’s heritage, and, fortunately, we have a framework for achieving this goal,” said Levine.
While Moran is supportive of the effort, his firm has gone through design review and is waiting on permits to begin construction. Time is a limited resource.
Both Moran and Levine expressed optimism that the community will help secure the future of this small piece of Washington history.
For information on how to donate, visit http://www.jhsgw.org/savethemural/index.php or contact the JHSGW directly at 202-789-0900.
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