Historic House in Chevy Chase Torn Down Despite Neighbor Pleas

Photo by Leonard Jewler

“Dear PoPville,

The 100-year-old home at 3823 Morrison Street, NW has been demolished in defiance of more than 200 area residents who sought to have the Arts & Crafts house restored or sold to someone who would. This demolition is sparking a renewed effort to obtain a historic district for Chevy Chase, DC.

In addition, we learned yesterday that developer Robert Holman may have possibly sold the property (but perhaps not yet gone to settlement) to another developer. So it’s unclear what exactly will be built on the site.

See below for an open letter with more details.

Letter and before demo photos after the jump:

Dear Mr. Holman,

You are purportedly getting ready to demolish 3823 Morrison Street, NW this week — a venerable 3,000 square foot, 6-bedroom, 100-year-old home in the heart of Chevy Chase DC’s oldest subdivision, that you privately purchased for $825,000 in November 2013 and which 200 area residents have asked you not to tear down. This Arts & Crafts home represents the kind of architectural gem Chevy Chase, DC is known for and that buyers eagerly seek. Our latest letter to you with 206 signatures asking you not to tear down the house can be seen by clicking on the link.

For nearly six months we have been asking you to either restore the home or to sell it to someone who will. Early on you said you would sell it, first for $950,000, then for $1,000,000, and later reportedly for more. But when buyers contacted you and asked to see inside the house, it’s our understanding they weren’t able to get in.

A group of protesters was out in front of the house on Sunday and was stunned at the recent destruction in the front and side yards. Concrete walkways, mature plants and metal railings have been broken up and tossed aside. The large, old tree in the front yard doesn’t seem to have any protection from this mounting debris and from an earlier dig involving the sewer line. By these actions, you appear to have little regard for the property and for community residents who have repeatedly asked you to honor their desire to save 3823 Morrison Street from destruction and to work toward a win-win solution.

This 1914 home is filled with many highly prized and reusable materials — old growth wood flooring, oak paneling, pocket doors, wood and glass paneled doors, mantels, windows with antique wavy glass, century-old bricks and roofing slate and more. Bulldozing it and putting it in a landfill is environmentally destructive and wasteful. Our nation’s landfills are overflowing with construction debris that could have been recycled. Surely you understand that neighborhood residents don’t want to be exposed to airborne lead and asbestos dust that can happen when bulldozing a house.

You have torn down a number of houses in Chevy Chase, DC and built larger ones in their place. (e.g. 5412 Nevada Avenue, NW; 3211 Tennyson was torn down and replaced by 3211 and 3213 Tennyson St., NW). You have also made hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit on your building projects in this neighborhood and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

So why not alter your demolition plans for 3823 Morrison and work with concerned neighbors to achieve an acceptable resolution so you can go on to other less controversial projects. It would be a testament to your character and to your respect for the Chevy Chase, DC community if you did.



84 Comment

  • Good for him.

  • Buy the house or form a historic district. Pesky little thing called private property rights.

    • Amen. Chevy Chase elected against have a historic district designation. This is the result.

    • saf

      They are trying to buy it.

      • But they want it for less than market value.

        • If you’re anonymous, you can say anything and hope it will stick. A group of neighbors offered Robert Holman his publicly announced asking price ($950,000 in January 2014, after having acquired the house from daughter of the 100-year-old deceased owner for $825,000 two months earlier, in November 2013), then stayed with him when he raised his price by $50,000 weekly until finally he refused to talk with us anymore. Now he’s sold the property to the Zuckerman Partners who plan to put up two semi-detached houses on the property, so clearly this was all about flipping land for the maximum income, not about building his own home, which was the story he told the ANC. You want to make it about “aesthetics,” thinking you can rouse the know-nothings’ ire, but in fact it’s about preserving the physical character of the neighborhood, keeping prices from being inflated by speculators/developers, saving resources, keeping lead dust from being spread willy-nilly–social responsibility stuff like that, anon.

          • Accountering

            Sounds great. This area of the city can certainly use more density. The house was ugly and beat up. Now we add one more taxpaying family to the city in an area that can certainly handle it.

            I couldn’t disagree more with your assertion that you are keeping prices from being inflated. Artificially depressing the housing supply does anything BUT keeping prices affordable, but you know that.

            Keeping lead dust from being spread? Come on – that is soft… at best. Preserving the physical character of the neighborhood? Things change – and they always have, and always will.

          • Everybody claims that Mr. Holman is a fairly sophisticated businessman, so if the neighbors actually offered him 1 million dollars as you say, one of two things must have happened 1) Zuckerman offered him more or 2) the group of neighbors didn’t have the cash or financing to make good on their “offer.” But I guess you know this as you say “clearly this was all about flipping land for the maximum income.” What is rather clear is that you think that you are entitled to either dictate Mr. Holman’s actions and/or buy the property below market value based simply upon your tenure in the neighborhood. I’m sure if the “group of neighbors” had put together a credible offer to beat Zuckerman and/or make it worth Mr. Holman’s while to sell he would have – there’s no rational reason not to.

          • preserving the character of a neighborhood is all about aesthetics and central to NIMBYism.

          • All these neighbors who supposedly care so deeply about the character of the neighborhood would probably lose their little minds if someone prevented them from getting the maximum value out of their property, if they wanted to sell it. But it’s okay to prevent this individual from doing so, in order to preserve the character of the neighborhood. It’s nauseating.

          • PDleftMtP

            I’m sure he didn’t take less money to sell it to someone else. That means it wasn’t market value. I’m looking and would rather buy a house like that than most of the new monstrosities out there, but I don’t think anyone else is legally or morally obligated to sell me their house.

    • People wouldn’t care so much if the mcmansions that replace these classics weren’t so butt friggin ugly. Take a drive through Wesley Heights some time. Grand old mansions and classic detached houses… peppered with pastiche mcmansions that harken back to every era that preceded them. Franken houses with 5 different veneers. Faux stone, shingle, shake, clap siding, and plaster. Its better than the new construction you find in the burbs as these are rich neighborhoods. but its still ugly. If you are going to bulldoze a house why not make something new and modern instead of trying to make a bigger uglier version of what you just tore down. The result is almost always some fake craftsmen chalet. Bleh. Money doesnt buy class as they say.

  • Good grief! Not exactly a “teardown” at that price or quality. This house could have been gutted/restored for a fraction of the cost and the owner would still have wound up with a grand home.

  • “The future is built on the rubble of the past.” — Arthur C. Clarke

  • Sadly what will be built likely won’t be of a quality to last 100 years……

    It is developers like this make historic designations necessarily. This wasn’t likely even torn down to make way for a big multi-unit building but just some suburban McMansion.

    • So what made it historic was that it looked like the other homes in the neighborhood? If anything, this guy tearing down one giant home and putting two homes (as the complaint letter indicated he had done in the past) is good for the region compared to one family taking up a huge parcel of land.

      • Just understand that if an individual who hoped to restore the house had purchased it from the heir of the owner for $825,000 last November, and restored it to live in her/himself, it would have been more “affordable” than the two houses to be erected, which have to account for two speculators’ profits.

    • Curious why you think new structures should necessarily last 100 years. Why not demolish and rebuild to suit the new owners, if they so choose?

  • Sorry neighbors: this wasn’t your property and your opinion really doesn’t matter. If the house had that much significance it would have been designated as having it.

    I find it pretty funny that homeowners in one of the most expensive areas in the region are complaining about the owner making “hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit.”

    • Yeah, those “greedy” developers have nothing on those “selfish” neighborhood busybodies.

    • the neighbors won’t want anything to do with the kind of tasteless people who would buy this. think they’re out of luck there.Maybe tehy can come and hang out in your absurd pop up

    • It’s called speculation. Some people who moved into houses in this area in a time when other people were fleeing D.C. were able to afford homes they would be shut out of today. Not everyone in Chevy Chase–myself included–is rich. And yes, I do object to speculators flipping properties, erasing the neighborhood, and stuffing their already bulging bank accounts at the expense of this place.

      • It’s called rent-seeking. “I was here first, so screw anyone who wants in later” is hardly an egalitarian mindset.

      • You didn’t buy in a historic district, because you and your neighbors sought to avoid restrictions that might have negatively impacted your property values. Now you are finding out what that actually means in practice. It is very hard to have any sympathy for you. It is a classic case of “put up or shut up.”

      • You are arguing that you are not rich because you bought property cheap in a down market. Today, you own in one of the priciest neighborhoods in DC. You might not have been rich, but you are now. Accept it and be grateful.

  • I’m no preservationist. But there is something to be said for the notion of an urban fabric, the feel of a neighborhood. It’s not like urban renewal, where functional and useful neighborhoods of SW were demolished to erect brutalist mistakes that can be unmade. But all it takes is one ugly pop-up to detract from the rest of the block.
    That said, I won’t particularly weep for the loss of this $1M property to be replaced by two $900k properties.

    • it makes me more and more convinced I bought wisely in a historic district. it’s not for everyone, but I appreciate that these kinds of actions are severly limited, and that makes it consistent with my values. It costs a premium and might make the neighborhood less attractive to certain buyers but I’m good with that.

    • That’s why you band together and form an historic district. Otherwise, who’s to judge which snapshot in time is the ideal urban fabric of a neighborhood? Maybe I think that Chevy Chase would be far nicer if we rolled back time 150 years, bulldozed ALL of these houses, and restored it to pastureland. Frankly, I would get much more enjoyment out of that.

  • “Defiance”? That implies that you have some type of authority over a private property owner who’s acting in compliance with the law. If that’s any indication of how you’ve dealt with this developer so far, it’s not surprising that he’s ignoring you. If I were the developer and had received that letter, I’d call the demolition crew and get them to start work immediately.

  • Talk about deferred maintenance! I’ve had my eye on that house for some time, and the owner (for whatever reason) let a once-beautiful house slip into utter dereliction. The nearly identical house next door has been lovingly renovated and expanded, which drew even more attention to the unusually poor condition of this place.

    It’s a shame. But, if someone wanted to renovate it, they should have bought it. Period, full stop.

    • More than a dozen people got in touch with Robert Holman asking to see the interior because they were interested in buying it from him to restore it. He refused to let them in, telling them that it was beyond redemption. Obviously he had his eyes on a bigger prize. He had obtained it through the intervention of a real estate agent, in a private sale from the heir of the 100-year-old deceased resident, who lives out of the region–i.e., it never went on the MLS so people interested in acquiring it at the source were cut out of the process. Before you opine, you should at least know the facts.

      • And…so what? The guy bought a property and didn’t want to let people inside it for whatever reason. There is nothing at all controversial in this entire situation, unless there’s some bizarre concept that neighbors have first right of refusal on buying neighborhood property.

      • I want to come look inside your house. Maybe I’ll buy that if I like it. If people wanted it, they could have contacted the heir as well. Get over it and yourself. By the way, i’d tear down your house just for fun when i bought it.

      • And apparently now you’re angry because a developer outmaneuvered you to buy a neglected property from an out of state heir who probably didn’t want to deal with the headache of getting this place ready to sell? If you were so invested in the neighborhood, perhaps you would have known enough about the owner’s situation to offer to help her settle her estate/affairs/whatever after she died and been able to do the same as the developer. It’s too bad you’ve lost part of the fabric of your community, sure, but guess what life isn’t fair and trying to shame developers into behaving anything like business people is like trying to push water upstream.

        • whoops….last sentence should have read “….behaving in any way other than as business people….”

  • Surrounding ourselves with things older than we gives us both a false sense of stability and an important sense of scale. There are a lot of lessons here, but in the end this is only old by American standards.
    Pick yourselves up, befriend whomever moves in, move on, and count your limited time on this earth not worth another wasted neighborhood fight.
    If anything this fight brought the neighborhood together, which on balance, is nice.

  • Absolutely zero sympathy for the area residents.

  • Ah, it’s his property. Certainly. But that doesn’t mean one can’t be sorry to see a historic home of this nature torn down. Nor to “plea” with the owner to do something else, with the obvious (and likely) possibility one’s persuasion will fail.

    • Not just possibility, but probability. I work with developers from time to time, and one thing I’ve learned is that public shaming is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Ineffective, in that I’ve never met a developer who cares about public opinion unless there’s a concrete, plausible threat behind it. Counterproductive, in that I can easily see a developer dig his heels in so he doesn’t get a reputation for caving to public pressure, thereby making future deals more of a hassle.

      • The portrait you’ve painted explains why developers are so beloved.

        • I’m well aware that developers fall somewhere between parking enforcement officers and drug dealers on the popularity scale. But you don’t have to like developers in order to understand how to deal with them. In any dispute you need to know what leverage you have, and in this case it’s very likely that OP helped assure his or her own poor outcome with this approach — especially because on one side you have someone who’s clearly emotionally invested and on the other someone who is thinking purely in terms of dollars.

      • I love popville, where somebody quibbles “likely possibility” versus “probability.”

  • ah

    Did the 200 residents protesting this demolition use their power of numbers to obtain historical designation of the neighborhood?

    Was it because they couldn’t get sufficient community support for that designation, in which case they’re acting contrary to majority will?

    Or do they not want to have their own houses burdened by historical designation, so didn’t even bother to pursue that route?

    • no – they don’t want historic designation for the modest nearby colonials (what’s left of them anyway) for which they welcome the bulldozer and the boost in property values. This one is not a typical teardown, even if its condition is compromised, simply on size alone. That doesn’t mean they’d consider the same fate for their properties.

    • 200 people should pool 10K each and they probably could have just bought this place for 1.5mm and spent another 500k on reno.

      • A group of neighbors came together to pool their money and offered Robert Holman his publicly announced asking price ($950,000 in January 2014, after having acquired the house from daughter of the 100-year-old deceased owner for $825,000 two months earlier, in November 2013), then stayed with him when he raised his price by $50,000 weekly until finally he refused to talk with us anymore. I was in the group and had no interest in making money; I just wanted to help provide a bridge for that house to be safely conveyed to someone who would treasure it. Now he’s razed the house and has a contract to sell the property to Zuckerman Partners who plan to put up two semi-detached houses on the property, so clearly this was all about flipping land for the maximum income, not about building his own home, which was the story he told the ANC. You want to make it about “aesthetics,” thinking you can rouse the know-nothings’ ire, but in fact it’s about preserving the physical character of the neighborhood, keeping prices from being inflated by speculators/developers, saving resources, keeping lead dust from being spread willy-nilly–social responsibility stuff like that, anon.

        • You want to make it about “aesthetics,” thinking you can rouse the know-nothings’ ire, but in fact it’s about preserving the physical character of the neighborhood” Sorry, but this is aesthetics and you have just outed yourself as a nativist know-nothing.

        • This is the third or fourth post in which you’ve personally insulted people who disagree with you. So it’s pretty clear that you have no interest in honest, rigorous debate over something on which reasonable people can disagree. And, as pointed out above, it’s no wonder that you’ve lost the battle here. Why would the developer engage you when you’re just being a pill who will likely never be satisfied?

    • Creating a historic district is a long process. It’s not something you can do in a few weeks. The process isn’t easy and yes, as can be seen in this thread, there is more f* you anti-aesthetic, pro-let me do whatever the f* I want sentiment in the city now than was present in the 1970s, when most of the city’s historic districts were created.

      And the process to try to create a historic district in Chevy Chase bogged down over these kinds of issues. Plus that there isn’t enough technical support provided to groups trying to do it, and it is difficult to proceed in the case of ANCs not acting in good faith, which is what happened in Chevy Chase too.

      • Or maybe there just wasn’t as much support for it among your neighbors as you thought there was.

  • 100 years old is an arbitrary number and does not connote any special historic value that these neighbors are claiming. In 2060 will we be calling buildings from the 60’s historic in DC? No.
    Let us be clear about what these neighbors are angry about: This many is going to build something that they don’t “like” or have control over. Within the boundaries of the law he can put up any house of any design that he wants.

    • wrong — you already have pockets of historic MCM homes in DC (Crestwood and Forest Hills), not to mention whole planned communities in VA and MD suburbs. Anything built by Charles Goodman, for one.

    • oh, the other thing is the difference between “historic” in terms of defining individual properties, vs. designating and defining historic _places_. Virtually all of the houses in Chevy Chase qualify in terms of the latter (“contributing structures”) even if they wouldn’t rise to the level of an individual landmark.


      I am saddened that there are plenty of people willing to move into the city now, which was basically “saved” by preservationists, working to stabilize neighborhoods during the many decades that trends didn’t favor urban living. Ironically, people want to live in neighborhoods comprised of historic building stock but they don’t want to have to take on communitarian responsibilities to maintain the qualities of what attracted them to the neighborhood in the first place.

      • Preservationists saved “historic” properties (I use quotes because I disagree that many are historic and or that the neighborhoods are) but they didn’t do anything to save the city of DC from anything beyond aesthetic changes to buildings that THEY valued. You are arguing a hypothetical “what if the rowhouses weren’t here” as though it would be a zero-sum game. That is not true.
        If those row-houses had fallen down during the era of de-stabilization and suburbanization then guess what? New houses would have been built! And probably ones that are equally as varied in quality and beauty as the ones that are currently all around us. Again, historic preservation is not some sort of “savior” of the city here.
        I – and I would argue many people – moved to DC because they like dense, walkable urban living. Not because of a Goodman home or the quaint feel of Columbia Heights of yore. If it is historic housing stock and districts that are driving people to move here then I stand corrected.
        Also, historic preservationists need to stop touting districts and designations as being the will of the people. They are the will of a well-organized, vocal minority that knows how to game the system and impose their will on others. The HPRB public input process is a joke that ignores the “great weight” will of the ANCs and pays lip service to the public testifying. We saw that firsthand with the new Meridian Hill park historic district and I guarantee others will too.
        I could rant on about this for hours but I have to get back to work now.

      • As to your first paragraph, I think we’re all aware of the distinction between a landmark and a contributing structure within a historic district. But thanks for the lecture. As to your second paragraph, it makes no sense. Or are you really sad that people want to move into the city? Because that’s what you wrote in that first rambling sentence.

  • This was an awful house. I lived two blocks away for 24 years and watched it disintegrate, as the owner could not or would not maintain it, and brushed off all offers of help. At this point the house is beyond the point of return, and the developer is doing the only economically appropriate thing left for it–scrap it and start again.
    BTW, plans to demolish this house sparked a furious debate on the Chevy Chase Community Listserv. Judging by the volume of comments on both sides, the majority of the neighbors are in favor of the teardown. Those who oppose it are far more visible, however.
    A few years ago Chevy Chase DC held a formal house-by-house referendum on whether to declare itself an historic district. The initiative was slammed down by 70% of the voters. I can’t believe this little dustup will change anyone’s mind.

    • Yes, that’s true, plans to tear down the house provoked much debate, but in a matter of a couple of days last January nearly 80 people signed on to a letter asking the developer to restore the house, and about 30 of them turned out at the ANC meeting where the developer presented his plans for his cozy 5,500-square-foot cottage for two (him and his fiancee) to ask him in person. In the ensuing months, another 130 people signed on to the letter. Of course, no one did a house-to-house survey of opinions, but Vered’s completely unscientific statement should be seen for what it is, an expression of her own opinion. As for the logic of buying into a neighborhood whose character is defined by its historic structures and then not giving a crap if they’re torn down and the neighborhood becomes indistinguishable from the suburbs (except on smaller lots)–well, no one said humans were logical animals.

    • Thanks for the info Vered.

      I have zero sympathy for the people who objected to this teardown.

      And one pointed out lead dust being spread over the neighborhood – DCRA requires asbestos abatement prior to demolition and a spray down of debris as the building is demolished.

      Just a bunch of NIMBYs.

    • Damn straight: I don’t want speculator scum in my backyard.

      • Then you are abnormal. Speculators raise value. Most homeowners like value increases.

        • Not necessarily true. Developers who do good work create value that leads to value increases for others. Crappy work does not. It’s arguable depending on the final product what will happen here.

          I am familiar with examples of both types. Sadly, in DC, in undesignated neighborhoods, most of the speculative work is subpar and does result in value destruction rather than big increases in property value for neighboring properties.

          That being said you can always find a buyer. You only need one buyer… and it will appeal to someone, and if it costs less because it’s subpar, that can be seen as something good by at least one person.

          • Prove it. Prove that somewhere in DC proper developers have DECREASED value for the neighborhood in the work they do. I know you have a blog so I look forward to reading this there.

      • So you want folks who’ve speculated elsewhere in order to be able to afford to live in your neighborhood instead? Cool story bro.

      • Calling the developer scum…

        I would have stood outside the property while it was being demolished and laughed at all you NIMBYs.

  • I hope he replaces it with three wall-to-wall rowhouses with ground floor retail.

  • justinbc

    I think sentence “So why not alter your demolition plans for 3823 Morrison and work with concerned neighbors to achieve an acceptable resolution so you can go on to other less controversial projects.” is pretty much the definition of NIMBY. We don’t want you demolishing here, but we’re totally cool if you do it somewhere else!

  • Those who own homes in the area are short-sighted not to vote for neighborhood historic designation. Neighborhoods with such designation show greater increases in property values, over time, than those without. If you want to preserve old homes and the look and feel of your neighborhood, why not use the legal mechanism available to you?

    • Because the median age of Chevy Chase homeowners is high enough that many likely can’t/won’t wait for “over time” to take affect. I doubt there are too many folks who live here who actually need their homes to appreciate in value…

    • “Neighborhoods with such designation show greater increases in property values, over time, than those without.” This only applies to stagnant development. If your house has the potential for a large building with many units it will have a greater increase in property value. In historic neighborhoods on the upper east side you can still by a rowhouse for under 6 million, but imagine if they allowed a 50 story building on that block then it would be worth so much more.

    • Well, in this case of this particular house, I don’t think there was enough time for them to put a historic district in place.
      This does show the error of the neighborhood having earlier opposed a historic district. Maybe they’ll learn from this mistake.

  • The solution to disinvestment in a property isn’t demolition, it’s investment. DC’s practices for dealing with demolition by neglect are very weak. Eminent domain could have solved the problem a decade ago, if the one commenter’s statement that the property has mouldered for 24 years is correct.

    I am a big fan of receivership statutes, like in Ohio.


    • This just shows how out of touch you are — this would be a terrible use of eminent domain. You want to spend taxpayer money to save one house in a rich neighborhood, only because you and your neighbors would prefer a certain aesthetic? You must be joking.
      Then again, maybe you’re right. Maybe the city should have taken the property through eminent domain and converted it into a halfway house. Would that have made you happy?

      • not out of touch at all. Eminent domain would have got the building rehabilitated and back online. If you noticed the price of houses in that neighborhood, there’s no question it would have been done profitably. For what it’s worth, the program that the city did during the Williams Administration wasn’t great, but it did help move some properties that had languished in neighborhoods for many years (generally for a variety of wacked reasons, like with the Morrison St. house) by giving people a push with higher taxes for vacant properties.

        Note that DC isn’t a weak real estate market. Note that eminent domain-receivership is not a tool to be used lightly, but it is a tool and has been used many times “for good” not just evil.

        • If you truly believe that eminent domain shouldn’t be used lightly then you’d realize that this would be a frivolous use of it. The market seems to be taking care of that now, isn’t it? The property will be back online soon enough, just not in a format that makes you and your neighbors happy. And keeping you and your neighbors happy isn’t a valid use of taxpayer money. And to equate this property with properties in neighborhoods that have serious blight problems just shows your lack of perspective and — again — that you’re out of touch.

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