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Item in The Northwest Current, 11/26/03

Board sees historic merit in Western Union tower

Elizabeth Wiener

The old Western Union tower on 41st Street in Tenleytown was declared "eligible" for landmark status by local preservation authorities. But it's still unclear whether that action will translate into greater protection for the 1947 structure--or what the implications are for the controversial 756-foot telecommunications tower now standing half-built on the same site.

The old tower now falls squarely under a little-known clause in the federal preservation law, known as Section 106, which requires federal agencies to evaluate the impact on historic structures before issuing permits for new construction--such as a telecommunications tower--that might cause damage or even obscure the views.

American Tower Corp., which is still fighting the city in court for pulling permits on the new tower two years ago, did not contest the eligibility recommendation. But its lawyer insisted the recommendation should not affect "local zoning actions. American Tower wants to make sure its property rights are protected," attorney John Clark said.

The unanimous vote by the city Historic Preservation Review Board last Thursday comes as a victory for David Rotenstein, a Silver Spring consultant who has been trying to win protections for the old beige tower, which was part of the nation's first microwave telegraph system. The structure sits just off Wisconsin Avenue just north of Brandywine Street.

Fifteen months ago, Rotenstein filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission alleging that American Tower Corp. flouted the law when it began constructing the new tower in October 2001 [sic]* without researching historic structures on the site and, admittedly, without even consulting the local preservation office.

The Federal Communications Commission has yet to deal with Rotenstein's complaint and doesn't seem enthusiastic about doing so. Rotenstein said in an interview that he expects the "eligibility" designation to prod the commission to act.

But Rotenstein found a warm audience at the local preservation board, which quickly agreed that the old tower meets the criteria for landmark protection. "Why wasn't it nominated as a local and federal landmark?" asked board member Charles Robertson.

Staff historian Tim Dennée  explained that the owner of the site, in this case American Tower, had not applied.

According to Rotenstein's research, the 73-foot tower was part of an experiment by Western Union to use technology learned during World War II to replace century-old wire telegraphy with microwave beams. The company constructed a rough triangle of some 25 towers stretching from New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Washington tower was the only one designed by an architect, Leon Chatelain.

The wireless telegraph system was hailed at the time as "revolutionary," Rotenstein said. "This system truly changed the face of communications. What I found is a significant piece of the nation's industrial history--literally in our backyard."

Despite some additions and the new tower now blocking the front view, the octagonal beige tower is still remarkably intact, he testified. But the site is endangered, Rotenstein added, not only by construction of the new tower but by cellular antennas "co-located" on the old one by American Tower.

The old tower, now surrounded by several other taller metal towers on what is known to some as "Broadcast Hill," served Western Union for years, according to Rotenstein's research. In 1996 it was sold to a company called Micronet, whose assets were purchased by American Tower Corp. a year later.

Attorney Clark, who handles preservation issues for American Tower, was set to object but said preservation office staff assured him the deliberations would "not affect local zoning actions" by the city. "This emphasizes the historic nature [of the old tower], but as a technical legal matter, it doesn't increase protections," he said later.

"What this is really about ... is a rather well-known half-built tower," Clark complained to the board. "This is something of a tower farm." He said preservation law is not well-tailored to the modern telecommunications industry.

"We can't take into account the reasons behind the nomination," board chair Tersh Boasberg told him. "For us, it's rather simple: We've got this nomination, and we have to deal with it straight up."

After the hearing, Rotenstein e-mailed a report on the local preservation board action to Federal Communications Commission officials, asking them to "apprise me of the status of the complaint I filed ... fifteen months ago."

In an interview, Rotenstein said he has consulted both for tower companies and citizen groups on preservation issues before the federal commission, which he said has a poor record of handling complaints.

In one well-publicized case, the commission halted construction on a tower at Fordham University adjacent to the historic New York Botanical Gardens after many complaints. "The tower's been half-built since 1994, and the FCC is still investigating," he said. Other companies have been fined for violating Section 106, Rotenstein said.

But the federal commission has ignored other complaints about the impact of new towers on historic structures, Rotenstein said. He said he helped residents of Bay Head, N.J., file a complaint about a new tower in their historic district. The commission dismissed it as "without merit," and another complaint against American Tower concerning a new tower in Severn, Md., has also sat for months without action, Rotenstein said.

Calls to the Federal Communications Commission yielded little information.

Michael Wagner, of the commission's Media Bureau, said only that Rotenstein's 15-month-old complaint about the tower in Tenleytown "is pending." Wagner referred questions to Amos Loveday, a cultural resource specialist assigned to handle such complaints. But Loveday said he was not familiar with the specifics of the Tenley case.

The recommendation to declare the Western Union tower eligible for landmark status will be forwarded to the National Register. Rotenstein said he will continue to pursue his complaint against American Tower.

"The only way to mitigate the impact is to remove that [new] tower," he said.

*Construction actually began in early 2000.--Ed.

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