The Old Georgetown Board: It’s the Law

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Alan Brangman, AIA.

Any project you dream about that involves the exterior of your house or property in Georgetown must first be reviewed by the Old Georgetown Board. It’s the law: the Old Georgetown Act of 1950. The act designated the boundaries of the Old Georgetown district and directed the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to appoint an advisory board of architects to conduct design reviews of all Old Georgetown projects.

That means on everything — from a complete rebuild to new windows, balconies or doors, façade work, terrace construction, even perhaps the awnings.

The appointed advisory board of three architects — currently H. Alan Brangman, AIA; Mary Katherine Lanzillotta, FAIA; and Richard Williams, FAIA — who serve three-year terms without compensation, meets the first Thursday of every month in offices at the National Building Museum. At these sessions, the board goes minutely over dozens of plans of Georgetown owners and their architects.

Attending a review board session — they usually last all day — is seeing architectural design in progress. The advisory architects and at least one, often two, of the board’s staff architects dig into every detail of the proposed work. They indicate features of the projected plans with light pointers and listen intently to the architect, the owner and any neighbor who shows up. They offer suggestions and make side comments. At times, it is lighthearted.

A plan rarely gets approved on the first go. “It can take two, three, four, maybe more reviews to finally get a plan approved,” architect Robert Gurney told The Georgetowner. He had just been grilled for half an hour regarding a planned total remodel of the rear of a large P Street home. It was the second time he had presented the plans to the board.

“I plan on at least four months for the first review of a plan to be approved,” Gurney said.

There is no charge for presenting (and re-presenting) plans to the Old Georgetown Board. Owners can draw up and present the plans themselves. But most owners use architects, preferably ones with Georgetown building experience. And fees can be charged if owners make research requests to the board.

Reviews must go through four steps. The “concept” or “permit” review of proposed site plans and architectural plans is the first.

The complete drawings, showing existing conditions and the proposed construction, have to be submitted three weeks prior to an Old Georgetown Board meeting. That’s step two.

Step three is for the staff to review the materials. More information may be requested. The case can be denied or postponed until a later date if everything has not been submitted properly.

Depending on scope, the project then may be placed directly on the calendar for review at the next meeting or reviewed by staff and placed on the consent calendar. That’s step four. The meetings are public, but no specific times can be scheduled, since the amount of time each submission will be discussed is unknown. Neighbors are encouraged to voice their concerns.

Representatives from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E and from the Citizens Association of Georgetown almost always attend the public meetings. “We have attended these reviews long enough that we can see the evolution of the designs,” ANC Chair Joe Gibbons commented.

One of the Citizens Association’s biggest concerns is about how the privacy of neighbors will be affected by design changes, noted Elsa Santoyo, who chairs CAG’s Historic Preservation and Zoning Committee.

The Old Georgetown Board does in-depth reviews of some 15 to 20 projects a month at its sessions. But it receives upwards of 40 projects a month for review. “More than half the projects we receive are placed on the appendix for permit action, with maybe just some comments like ‘Replace the type of window proposed,’” said Secretary Thomas Luebke in a phone interview. “But we are unique in the country in that all of our district has been designated as historic.”

The board is funded at about $2.5 million from federal monies, since the Old Georgetown Act is federal law (Public Law 81-808). “It’s a tight budget and we’ve been at the $2 million range for almost a decade,” said Luebke. The money comes out of the Interior Department budget although the board is independent (and subject to government shutdowns).

OLD GEORGETOWN BOARD

U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
401 F St. NW, Suite 312
Washington, DC 20001-2728
202-504-2200

cfastaff@cfa.gov
For Georgetown inquiries, email georgetown@cfa.gov.

The U.S Commission of Fine Arts is composed of seven members with expertise in the arts. Appointed by the President, members serve four-year terms without compensation. The chairman and vice chairman are elected by the members. The current members are: Chairman Earl A. Powell III; Vice Chairman Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA; Edward D. Dunson, Jr., AIA; Liza Gilbert; Toni L. Griffin; Alex Krieger, FAIA; and Mia Lehrer, FASLA.           

The staff of the Commission of Fine Arts, which also administers the operations of the Old Georgetown Board, consists of 12 full-time civil service employees. The current staff members are:

Secretary Thomas Luebke, FAIA

Assistant Secretary Frederick J. Lindstrom

Sarah Batcheler, AIA, LEED AP, Architect, Shipstead-Luce Act

Eve Barsoum, Architectural Historian, Old Georgetown Act

Jonathan Mellon, Historic Preservation Specialist, Old Georgetown Act

Jessica Stevenson, Historic Preservation Specialist, Old Georgetown Act

Tony Simon, Architect and Planner

Kay Fanning, Ph.D., Historian

Daniel Fox, Public Affairs Specialist

Trenice Hall, Administrative Officer

Susan M. Raposa, Records Officer/Technical Information Specialist

Raksha Patel, Administrative Support Assistant

 

 

 

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