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Alexandria Fire Department analyzing Charlene's structural damage.

Crash raises concerns about Old Town residents’ responsibility toward historic buildings

A recent crash in Old Town Alexandria sparks questions about how residents should maintain their historic homes.

On Nov. 20, a dump truck hit the side of a historic property in Old Town Alexandria housing  Charlene’s Kitchen,  a catering company and restaurant a block away from the main strip of King Street.

The driver of a privately owned dump truck got distracted and jumped the curb, hitting the building, according to Bill Conkey, Historic Architect for the City of Alexandria.

A spokesperson for the Alexandria Fire Department said the accident caused structural weakness to the building but declined to offer more details.

Following the accident, residents expressed concern about the structure’s condition and the landowner’s ability to repair the historic property with limited resources and materials.

Historic Building with Historic Alexandria plaque showcasing historical significance within Old Town.

“I remember Charlene’s. She rented the space, so the landlord is responsible for repairs. Hopefully, it will be up and running again soon,” Ann, a community resident, said. She declined to provide her surname for privacy purposes.

Although the Fire Department’s spokesperson said occurrences like the Nov. 20 accident are “uncommon,” community members wonder how to care for and maintain their historic residences. These additional considerations leave many residents questioning whether the responsibility of owning a historic home is worth the effort and cost.

“When moving into a historic area, you need to know the responsibility you are getting into or else don’t get a historic home,” Ann said.

The City of Alexandria Historic Zoning and Preservation Commission and the Board of Architectural Review provide online design guidelines for post and pre-1932 properties depending on location, year built, and whether the building is front or side facing the street.

But homeowners do not receive financial assistance from the city for privately owned properties, leaving many to fend for themselves when obtaining materials or any other historical equivalent that helps maintain Old Town’s signature historic atmosphere.

The Office of Historic Alexandria’s budget is over $4 million, according to Alexandria’s multi-year budget plan. The department oversees maintenance, preservation, and planning to ensure the historic heritage of public spaces remains intact, and the budget goes to supporting those initiatives.

Old Town Alexandria is a historic district with 40 properties registered on the National Registry of Historic Places.

“Some recent residents who moved to Old Town are looser regarding historical accuracy. The area’s appearance is why many move here. I don’t mind the additional requirements, but some do,” Robert Moore, an Old Town resident, who does not own property directly within the historic district, said.

Historic homes lining the streets of Old Town.

Since residents face additional considerations, Moore said he worries whether newer community members find it worth it to maintain historic aesthetics and appeal by seeking out historically appropriate materials.

“Over time, [the board] will move with the people’s will and ease historic restrictions causing the area to lose its charm and uniqueness,” Moore said.

Alexandria’s Board of Architecture Review (BAR) has online design guidelines showcasing which materials residents can use for repairs on their property but have limited options when deciding what building materials fit BAR and the Historic Preservation Commission’s historically aesthetic standards.

“Some houses are fully documented. Others are not. We are currently working on a survey of the historic district where we hope to gather information on all buildings in the district,” Susan Hellman, principal planner at the City of Alexandria, said.

She said they are still “years away” from completing their survey efforts to document all the historic Old Town homes. According to Hellman, the city provides limited resources for maintaining these properties and does not have a centralized page with all information or resources but works toward streamlining the process for residents.

Alex Fernandez

Alex Fernandez is a returning School of Communication Alumni at American University, pursuing his Master's (MA) in Investigative Reporting. He has previously worked independently since graduating American University in 2019.

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