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Item in The Northwest Current, 10/29/03

Staff backs tower as historic

Elizabeth Wiener

The city Historic Preservation Office is recommending that an old Western Union tower on 41st Street--on the same site where a new 756-foot telecommunications tower is planned--be declared eligible for landmark status.

Eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places will be debated by the Historic Preservation Review Board next month. But it is unclear what impact that vote will have on American Tower Co., which has been fighting a prolonged--and so far unsuccessful--battle with the city to erect its new telecommunications tower directly in front of the old one.

Boston-based American Tower said it had not received proper notice of a hearing originally scheduled for last Thursday, so the board agreed to postpone deliberations until Nov. 20. The company's Washington attorney, John Clark, said the company has not decided whether to lodge an objection, but he argued that the preservation board should not get involved in what he called "a political dispute."

About two years ago, while Tenleytown residents were fighting construction of a tall new tower just off Wisconsin Avenue at Brandywine Street, an independent historian named David Rotenstein began studying the old tower, which faces Wilson High School. The base of the old tower is a simple limestone structure, ornamented only with the words "Western Union" in 13-inch-high bronze letters.

Rotenstein, in documents to be filed with the National Register of Historic Places, argues the telegraph tower, built at the city's highest elevation, "is a landmark in engineering history ... the only architect-designed building in the nation's first private-sector microwave communications system."

In a new report to the preservation board, city architectural historian Tim Dennée agrees the tower is eligible for landmark status, for its historical as well as architectural significance.

The 73-foot limestone tower, built from 1945 to 1947, is "perhaps the earliest and one of the last extant structures associated with the first commercial microwave telecommunications network" in the nation, Dennée noted. It's a roughly triangular telegraph relay system stretching between New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, he added.

The structure was designed by Leon Chatelain, a noted Washington architect and engineer who also designed the Washington Gas and Light Company headquarters and what is now Fannie Mae headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue, Dennée said.

The preservation board will decide next month whether the old tower is eligible for listing in the National Register. What that would mean to American Tower is a bit unclear, even to the various preservation and legal experts involved in the case.

According to Rotenstein, the company is already in violation of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires all parties receiving federal permits or licenses to identify historic properties and consult with the state historic preservation office before starting construction or demolition that could adversely impact them.

Rotenstein said that American Tower violated the law by beginning construction of its new tower two years ago without any consultation. Designating the old tower as eligible for landmark status would emphasize that fact, he argued.

Dennée, too, told the board that the "eligibility" designation would simply clarify that the project should be reviewed by preservation authorities.

Clark, the company's attorney, noted that the old tower was altered in 1963 when a much taller antenna was added. He said it's an "open question" whether the company is required to conduct a Section 106 review before proceeding with any work on the site. "The more interesting question," Clark added, "is whether this research would have been done if it hadn't been for the half-built tower."

The whole affair has some Tenleytown residents scratching their heads. "I still find it highly ironic that anyone wants a telecommunications tower torn down while simultaneously trying to get another telecommunications tower declared historic," wrote one wag on a neighborhood listserve.

Meanwhile, American Tower's $250 million lawsuit against the city for revoking its building permit is winding, slowly, through the legal system. Federal courts have dismissed the case, saying they have no jurisdiction, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment dismissed an appeal as untimely. The case is pending in D.C. Superior Court while the company exhausts its administrative appeals.

The preservation case was held up because city property records listed the owner of both tower sites as a company called Micronet, of Jamison, Pa., and notice from the preservation board was returned as undeliverable. It wasn't until last week that American Tower in Boston said it received proper notice--one day before the originally scheduled hearing.

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