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You Can Own History, But It’s a Fixer-Upper

by ARLnow.com March 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm 4,092 52 Comments

The Harry W. Gray House in Arlington View is on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture and its significance to local African American history. And now it’s for sale for a mere $291,000.

The house was built in 1881 by Harry Gray, a bricklayer and a former slave in the Arlington household of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Despite the fact that the house stood alone on a 10 acre piece of farmland at the time, Gray built it in the Italianate style of fashionable townhouses he had seen in the District. The architecture was a statement about how far freed slaves had come since the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The dwelling represents the monumental shift from slaves to freedmen for African Americans in the years following the Civil War,” a National Park Service document states. The house sits at present-day 1005 South Quinn Street, near Columbia Pike and adjacent to what was once a thriving Freedman’s Village.

The house remains a sturdy structure, its longevity a testament to Gray’s workmanship. Its yard is fairly well-kept, and the brick exterior itself doesn’t look much older than other houses in the area . However, the interior needs some work thanks in part to what we’re told is water damage under a second-floor wooden deck and some outdated fixtures (wood stove, anyone?).

That’s not to imply that the interior is from the 19th century. Indeed, the house was largely gutted and renovated in 1979 after being sold by Gray’s descendants.

“There’s really nothing of significance left” inside, according to county historic preservation planner Rebeccah Ballo.

The home is a foreclosure. The bank took possession of the house late last year, county property records show. Also hurting the value of the home is the fact that the owner won’t have much latitude to make changes to the exterior.

“Any change has to be reviewed by county Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board” to make sure it’s “in keeping with the original architecture of the house,” Ballo said. On the plus side, interior changes would not require approval.

For all the hassle, whoever buys the place will get a home much more unique than any similarly-priced studio condo in Clarendon.

“It’s an important house and a really lovely one too,” Ballo said.

  • I can’t see this one lasting long in the market; lotsa history buffs around here…and sad but true, the price is cheaper than most studios where I live…

    • RKrafft

      There are very valuable tax credits available to owners who renovate the interiors of historically designated properties. Don’t know the specifics. Mike Leventhal in the county historic affairs office should be an authority. Basically, if you put in new plumbing, you get a percentage of that cost off of your taxes (i.e., not a tax deduction, a tax credit). Very attractive arrangement for historic owners.

  • John Fontain

    hey legal eagles – what is the basis for the county controlling what the owner can or cannot do with this private property?

    • Burger

      It is on the National Registry not county so I’d guess national rules which are probably in sync with county rules.

      It is also why this place is cheap since it will be a PITA to do any renovations and that place looks small.

      • I’m told it’s on both.

        • cj

          Correct — the house has been designated a local historic district. Any exterior changes need a certificate of appropriateness from the HALRB.

        • Burger

          Fair enough. It just said National Registry.

      • John Fontain

        whether the “registry” is national or local, my question still stands. what is the the basis for the gov’t (county, state, federal, take your pick) controlling what the owner can or cannot do with this private property?

        i’m not saying there isn’t a basis, I just want to know what the basis is. for example, the county can have an easement on your property to run a sewer line. so what gives the government the right in this case to control what you can and can’t do with the outside of the home? did a prior owner get anything in exchange for giving up control over the property? etc, etc?

        • Lou

          Unless you want to get into a theoretical discussion about the whole basis of laws, the one word answer to your question is: Congress.

        • Rosslynite

          It is a form of zoning, which similarly messes with citzen’s ability to use property as he or she sees fit. If left to our own devices, the citzenry will act selfishly and ruin or squander any good thing we have. The government’s role as the protector of our welfare gives it the inherent authority to make such designations.

        • Lawman

          Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.

    • local

      Same basis as zoning, permits, etc. – you don’t want to get rid of those, do you?

    • othersideoftheriver

      Zoning Ordinance, Section 31A: Historic Preservation Districts

      I don’t know the details on this particular property, but generally when a property (structure or land) is placed in a historic district or has a historic or conservation easement put on it, the owner at the time of the easement gets something in return — a tax break, generally. Subsequent owners don’t get any recompense besides the inner glow that comes from owning something important to the fabric of the community.

      No, not meant facetiously, but really, the easements are often a pain — in this case, an approval process for exterior modifications. If you replaced the windows with modern vinyl, you’d lose part of what makes the property unique. Besides, there’s an entire industry out there to support historic preservation. Check out the wonderful Old House Journal and any of the National Park Service preservation briefs.

  • Lou

    Two comments and nobody said Dremo’s! yet?

    • Nice


  • DT

    I know that neighborhood isn’t the greatest but that still looks like a great price. I wish I could buy it and fix it up.

    • KA

      South Arlington may not have the poshness of North Arlington, but it’s a far cry to say this house is located in a bad neighborhood.

      • DT

        Well I guess its a good thing I didn’t say this was a bad neighborhood then isn’t it?

        • local

          And KA didn’t say you said that either.

          I win.

      • PikeHoo

        It is fair to say that it’s in a dumpier part of Columbia Pike. Yes, the town homes on the north side of Columbia Pike are nice, but the south part (where the house is located) is run down. To each his own though. I looked at this place about a year ago back when they wanted $360K for it. It’d be a complete money pit even at $291K. I’d bet the entire plumbing system has to be replaced.

  • VASQ

    It’s actually at 1005 SOUTH Quinn Street (not North, as the article indicated).

  • CrystalMikey

    If I could afford it (more so the fixing up part), then I’d go for it.

  • James

    I lived in this neighborhood for over five years (about a block away) and always loved this house. I moved elsewhere (yes, still in South Arlington) and while I agree that it’s not a “bad” neighborhood it’s certainly not the best either.

  • Greg

    I would l.o.v.e. to have that house. The neighborhood is fine, I’ve lived off that end of the Pike for years.

  • Arrrrrlington

    Sh-t, that’s a good deal. The 1500 square feet is HUGE compared to the one bedroom Colonial Village Condo I share with my GF. We are splitting 560 Sq ft. right now.

    If only it was less than a mile walk to the Metro. According to Google maps it’s 1.4 miles. Anything over 3/4 of a mile is a PIA for quick trips.

    • FrenchyB

      Frequent bus service to Pentagon & Pentagon City there.

  • Glebe Roader

    Everyone who complained when Overlee announced they were tearing down their house … are you going to step in and buy it? Where are you now?

    • Burger

      How or why would people complain about the Overlee house. Isn’t it owned by the swim club shouldn’t they be able to do with what the please barring some type of landmark status.

    • charlie

      this house was fortunate to have already had owners who CARED. so it already has historic protection and would be very difficult to tear down.
      Unlike the house at Overlee that not only has NO PROTECTION But it also has owners who don’t care and have let 30+ years of neglect be the rationale for tearing down and otherwise cool house with an awesome history.

  • CW

    What’s the catch? The price is way low, from looking at a zillow map of recent sales in the immediate vicinity. Even as a foreclosure, it can’t be that much of a fixer upper if it’s been under historical designations all these years. Does it have a lien or some other kind of financial baggage that comes with it?

    • Burger

      Probably not but you have to deal with the government (and I am not saying it is wrong) to make any significant changes to the outside of the building. You can’t change the windows which look like their about 100 years old without jumping through 15,000 hoops. That makes your utility bills pretty high. You can’t add on to the house and any design changes would require approval. Who knows how much you in county fees and professional fees to do anything.

      As a buyer, why deal with those issues when there are a number of houses that are more just around the corner but do not have the headache of dealing with the National and County Registry.

      • CW

        Ok, I was just curious if it was just the registry-related issues. I’m sure, though, that even with that, they’ll have no trouble finding a buyer!

    • local

      CW – the story explains it. It was gutted in 1979, which means it had no historic preservation protection for the interior then. So it could be a complete mess inside.

  • Chris

    This is a charming house. I wish there were more gems left like this in Arlington. Maybe the building of new Washington Bld bridge (if ever)is affecting the value of the house?

  • AS

    I want to look at this house. However, I have some concerns about the neighborhood. Is it safe? What is the makeup of the neighborhood? Age, economic status, etc.

    • South Arlington

      The townhomes across Columbia Pike by the park and dog park are mainly young professionals, young couples or families, and professionals.

      • CW

        I think that description requires a venn diagram…

    • local

      I once visited a friend who lives a block away. It’s a nicer neighborhood than it looks like.

  • AV Neighbor

    Allow me to enlighten everyone. The neighborhood is safe. I have lived here for 19 years and have raised my children in this neighborhood. The crime rate is low. The neighbors are modest and friendly and the majority of homes are well kept. It is mixed income, with many upper middle income residents who live modestly. Many residents have lived here for most of their lives, and young families are moving into affordable homes that need some TLC. Arlington View Terrace is owned by AHA and they are excellent neighbors. We have an active Civic Association that works hard towards building a strong community and preserving our quality of life. Arlington View is actually one of the best kept secrets in Arlington.

    The featured home has been on the market for more than a year. The ART bus runs through the neigborhood directly to the Pentagon City Metro and Metro buses stop half a block away and run to the Pentagon with only two stops in between.

    I hope this information is helpful.

  • ivc

    I wish I was in a position to buy, this is an awesome house. Real question here folks: does it have any ghosts?

    • DT

      It might but they’re black so you can’t see them. (ba dum bump)

  • SouthArlingtonRes

    Actually, having a house as a National Registry doesn’t always preclude the owner from doing anything to it – it depends on how it was written up for the registry. I know of several house on the National Registry that have NO restrictions for making changes. However, if the owners want to get a state tax rebate by renovating it and keeping it historic – THEN they have to jump through hoops and have loads of documentation. But as for actual restrictions, that is on a case-by-case basis. If you wan to know for sure, then check out its registry documentation.

  • Arlwhenever

    So sorry to hear about the foreclosure — went to a yard sale there once, the couple was very nice with a young one or two in tow.

    This property would sell for $400K if the building could be torn down.

    It’s so sad that instead of allowing a young couple to be made whole by selling the property for its unencumbered value, the political freakshow had to destroy the couple economically.

    • PikeHoo

      Political freakshow? Oh, come on. This house was a historical landmark before the young couple you mention bought it. Finding these things out is part of doing your due diligence on a property.

      And, nobody is going to buy this house for $400K or $300K or $200K. Even if the land was vacant, it wouldn’t be worth that. Did you notice that the house had a tarp on the back of it for most of 2010. I suspect that was a $5 fix for trying to keep water out. I bet this place sells for $100K or less at auction. Hopefully, someone will fix it up right (maybe even the county) because it would be truly sad to see a real historical landmark like this get bulldozed.

      • Arlwhenever

        You push your political agenda, hoping the thing goes for $100K or less. Case closed.

        • PikeHoo

          If you say so. I didn’t know I had a political agenda. And, I didn’t know I was hoping for anything other than the house not getting bulldozed because it’s a significant historical landmark for the County. Case reopened.

    • borf

      If it was had a historical designation when they bought, that means:

      1. They were aware of that fact.

      2. They probably bought it at a discount too.

      I’m sorry they’re one of the millions of people who got screwed by the crash, but that’s not an excuse for selling our history off.

  • D Shirley

    I lived in that house for about 5 – 6 years, from the mid 90’s through about 2000. I was married in the courtyard of that house. It was the first house we brought my oldest daughter home to. We only moved because we were expecting our second child, and the house seemed a bit small for four people.

    When we lived there, it was in great shape, and we worked to maintain it. There were no leaks or plumbing problems. It was beautiful, with original glass in the front windows, original floors and lighting fixtures. We tried to screen the prospective buyers carefully, to ensure that whoever we sold to would take care of the property. It has since been sold at least 1 or 2 more times.

    It makes me very sad to see the condition of the house. There was no discount when we bought the house, nor when we sold it, for its historical importance. It seems as though whoever bought the house last simply could not afford to pay the mortgage, maintain the house, and take care of any maintenance/ repairs that were needed.

    For those interested, the outside is still in good shape, it’s the inside that needs work. How much work, I don’t know. I do know that we loved living there, and it has a great history.

    • Em

      You are right….

  • nance

    An interesting account of the Gray family’s contributions in history:

    Photos of the inside of the house from several years back:

  • Em

    I lived in this property for five years almost. Yes, the bubble broke and the house was not worth what my partner at the time paid for it. But the government prefers to kick you out and reduce the cost by 50% to someone else.
    The previous owner got big bucks for the place. Sadly life happens…..people get sick, lose jobs, bubbles burst….homes are lit.
    I’m glad to see that the new owner did an amazing job on it. It has been restored. Historic part is just the outside. No ghosts btw. Lol


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