Stop the Tower

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Item in The Northwest Current, 9/4/02

Original tower prompts historic claim

Chris Kain

Tenleytown residents who complained about the American Tower Corp.'s new 756-foot television and telecommunications tower cited a number of procedural and aesthetic arguments in getting the mayor to pull the building permit issued for the project, an action that is still the subject of a court fight.

Now, an independent researcher is introducing a new issue and a new venue. He says the site--home to a Western Union Telegraph Co. microwave transmission station built in 1947 as part of the nation's first private-sector microwave communications system--merits historic protection as a potential national landmark.

"It's unique," said David S. Rotenstein, a Silver Spring-based consulting historian. "There's no other building like it in the United States."

Rotenstein examined the Tenley tower case as part of his research into the telecommunications industry's compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. The Federal Communications Commission, citing the large number of permit applications and limited resources, relies on companies to determine that they have complied with requirements for consultation with local and federal preservation officials.

Last week, Rotenstein filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. His filing argues that American Tower failed to consult with the D.C. state historic preservation office or the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for a required Section 106 review, a process named for the applicable part of the Historic Preservation Act.

"Federal agencies have to take in to account whether their actions are going to adversely affect historic properties," he said.

The existing transmission station is a contributing element to a proposed National Register of Historic Places nomination covering Western Union's New York-Washington-Pittsburgh Radio Relay Triangle, a system aimed at increasing the capacity for sending telegraphs, eliminating the need for poles and wires, and positioning the company to provide transmission services for emerging television technology.

"The tower's decoration is minimal, its style informed by the moderne," says the registration form prepared by Rotenstein. "Slight curves and tapering along the parapet create an entasis effect. The only ornamentation is the 'Western Union' corporate name in 13-foot-high bronze letters on the tower's west facade."

The planned 756-foot tower--partially erected before the District suspended the permit in 2000--would overshadow the Western Union antenna station, he said. The new tower's location between the sidewalk and the 90-foot-high Western Union building also inhibits public views of the historic structure designed by prominent Washington architect Leon Chatelain Jr., said Rotenstein.

"It diminishes the architectural integrity of the Western Union building," he said.

Rotenstein said that the only way for the Federal Communications Commission to resolve the impact is to order removal of the tower. From a historic standpoint, he added, American Tower could probably build a new structure to the rear or side of the existing tower.

"Those would be in keeping with the design characteristics of the time--but certainly nothing of the scale that diminishes the character of the Western Union building and teh tower that's on it," Rotenstein said.

He compared the case to Fordham University's partially built tower in the shadows of the New York Botanical Garden, a designated landmark. New York City and the Federal Communications Commission blocked construction from proceeding in 1994, and the issue is still the subject of commission proceedings.

"It's now in the FCC's court," Rotenstein said of the Tenley tower.

One of the residents involved in the fight to block construction of the new tower isn't sure how to react to Rotenstein's filing.

Ann Loikow, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner active in the Stop the Tower Coalition and in the ongoing review of antenna-related zoning regulations, said that she had not looked into the potential historic merits of the Western Union structure. But she noted that others have successfully shepherded through landmark designations on properties that had been overlooked until one person took an interest in a particular building and chronicled an interesting past.

"I don't really have any thoughts on the merits," said Loikow. "If he has information on why that tower is significant, then somebody should take a look at it."

Gregory McCarthy, state historic preservation officer for the District, said he has not yet seen Rotenstein's filing. He noted, however, that District input in a Section 106 review is most important on projects that do not require city permits, such as the World War II Memorial.

That said, McCarthy added that the Section 106 requirement ought to be implemented when possible, but he deferred when asked whether such a review is still appropriate in this case.

"I would leave that to the lawyers," he said.

bulletDavid S. Rotenstein's FCC complaint (in Adobe Acrobat format)

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