Where Have All the Craftsmen Gone?
DC development blog DCmud interviewed Grant Epstein, who recently withdrew his proposal for 1922 Third Street NW. Mr. Epstein’s development company focuses primarily on adaptive reuse of historic properties.
One part of the interview caught our eye, as Mr. Epstein confirms what we have long suspected: ornate houses are difficult to build today because it’s harder to find skilled craftsmen to built custom ornaments:
It’s amazing the amount of craftsmanship that went into these houses on [Capitol Hill]. Detail that it’s very hard to replicate today. So the old townhouses, they inspire me. We’ve lost a lot in our new buildings, in the construction of them. It primarily has to do with the number of pieces that go into a house. There aren’t many craftsmen that know how to do the details.
[T]he people don’t exist anymore… the trades don’t exist. For instance, iron staircases. Two or three guys in the area do iron staircases the right way. Two or three guys! Back in the early 1900s there were forty! It’s a big difference. At M Street we found the iron treads from an old turn of the century house and recast the iron posts in order to use the same style that was supposed to be there, but was missing. There were only a couple of guys who knew how to do that.
While walking around LeDroit Park, we frequently notice detailed architectural ornaments that never adorn contemporary buildings. How many bricklayers today have the experience and skill to lay bricks as was done at the Mary Church Terrell house when it was built?
And how many bricklayers have the experience to construct a façade like this one on the McGill carriagehouse at 1922 Third Street?
The owners of this house on Third Street told me how impossible it was to find somebody to replicate these columns:
Rarely will you find anything like the gingerbread on the Anna J. Cooper house:
Brackets like these require a good amount of craftsmanship to carve and paint:
Contrast these houses with the vacant apartment house at 1907 Third Street NW: