“Here in Spartan splendor strolled the faculty in black silk robes; here waited the carriage of President John Quincy Adams as he attended a new professor’s opening lecture; here Stephen Chapin presided over the institution that was to become The George Washington University,” wrote the late Elmer Louis Kayser of a section of town not far from Howard University, once known as College Hill, where Columbian College was founded in 1821.
Today that neighborhood is ghastly, with rundown townhouses and trash littering overgrown yards. Most windows are either protected by iron bars or covered in plywood. As one walks down Chapin Street, named for GW’s first president, a glaring eyesore sticks out among the rest. It is not a building, but only a single wall, covered in graffiti, litter and thick vine, and wrapped in barbed wire. The windows have long since been removed and a black ring from a severe fire surrounds the remaining holes. Yet this artifact, built in 1821, is the last remnant of GW’s first campus.
Much attention has been paid to Historic Foggy Bottom, and numerous buildings dating back 150 years or more are protected. But there are no defenders of historic George Washington University, of relics such as Woodhull Mansion (University Police Department), Quigley’s Pharmacy (former geography department) or the Wetzel House (Graduate Career Center), to name a few. GW has no provisions for the protection of such sites, should future development ever threaten them.
The University administration and the trustees should create a historic preservation commission to develop guidelines for the protection of certain buildings that have significant historical value to the University or the neighborhood. While protecting a building for eternity may not be a feasible economic option, giving a building some sort of historic status can prevent significant alteration, vandalism or outright destruction.
Such a commission should be charged with deciding which GW buildings merit historic preservation, such as Woodhull, Quigley’s and the Lenthall House, and which ones do not. Most important are the buildings that fall in between the two categories, such as Strong Hall – more problematic because it must undergo frequent renovations – or Building XX, a former church at the northeast end of campus. While both have historic value, they may not merit preservation.
A historic preservation commission would be able to decide whether or not a building’s character would be threatened by some alteration. It also could decide if a building does not merit protection at all or if it suffers from structural damage – leaded paints and pipes or asbestos – and therefore could constitute a health hazard.
It is too late to save the crumbling Columbian College, which has passed into the annals of history rather quietly, leaving only street names such as Chapin and University Place as the indication that any institution ever existed there. The Foggy Bottom campus and, in particular, the buildings of significant historical value, may follow if the members of the GW community are not on their guard. Historic preservation will not put a brake on further University expansion; it will complement it, contributing to the cultural history of GW. If we do not act immediately to save historic GW, we may miss our chance.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is the Hatchet research editor.