Historic Alexandria Foundation loses battle to block renovation of Judge Hugo Black’s home

Black’s spacious garden and federal-style home, where he drafted opinions, hosted presidents, and played tennis, have been designated a historic landmark, and late justice has protected the property as an open space.

But Alexandria conservationists lost the battle in court on Thursday to block a planned renovation of the current owners of the South Lee Street property after Virginia Supreme Court said the project could go ahead.

The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower court’s finding that the Historic Alexandria Foundation had no legal basis to appeal after the city council signed the bill. The court acknowledged that the foundation was set up “to stand up for the preservation of Alexandria’s historic buildings, districts and districts”, but said the group’s mission “does not entitle it to challenge the city council’s decision”.

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The property, built around 1800, is owned by Nigel Morris, co-founder of Capital One, and his wife, Lori, who said on Thursday through his attorneys that he was pleased with the decision. A lawyer in Gifford Hampshire said in court statements that the planned renovation work was “in keeping with the historic character of the house”.

The foundation’s attorney, State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), described the decision as disappointing, with implications for historic preservation across the state. The group was supported by some of Black’s former legal officials, his grandson, a biographer and national defense organizations.

According to him, the task of the foundation is to “preserve the character of the Old Town” and it owns nearby real estate. “If they can’t have a say in what’s going on, it makes it very difficult to enforce other laws,” Petersen said. “It was a tent property and an important case.”

A city spokesman said in a statement that real estate “is arguably an architecturally and culturally important resource in Alexandria” and city officials have worked to “ensure that the rules of the historic district to protect such assets are fully complied with.”

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Kelly Gilfillen, acting director of communications, said the ruling made it clear that the process of contributing to the public, including the Historical Alexandria Foundation, was at city council level.

In 1969, Black voluntarily gave his property an “open space” easement, which puts restrictions on development to protect historic buildings and the surrounding land at the intersection of Lee and Franklin streets. The black widow sold the property in 1973. After several owners, the property was last sold to Vowell LLC, owned by Morrises, for $ 6.25 million in 2013, according to the city’s real estate records.

The dispute began in 2018, when the couple applied for and received permission from the city’s architectural committee to demolish parts of the home and make additional and other changes. In 2019, the city council challenged the decision, which was opposed by more than 100 neighbors.

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The foundation went to court and disputed plans to get rid of the curved wall of the house and install three brick “pavilion” structures in the garden.

Former black legal officers also opposed the changes, recalling that they were working on Black’s opinion polls and playing tennis in his home. Black was a senator from Alabama when he was appointed to court in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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“We have no doubt that if he were here, he would urge the court to prevent the destruction of his estate in Alexandria because of a decision made in violation of Virginia law,” said former officials John G. Kester, George L. Saunders and AE Dick. Howard said in a statement to the court.

In their application, the owners stated that in 1973 the open easement of the property was changed to allow maintenance of the tennis court. According to the owners’ attorney, it allows “structural changes, alterations, additions, or improvements” to the “manor house” with the prior written consent of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources.

The department confirmed that the renovation matched the easement and the city gave its blessing to the plans.

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However, lawmakers said in a statement that if the house is “disrupted due to demolition and modern additions,” it will no longer qualify as a representative of the foundation’s authentic historic homes.

“Virginia’s historical resource, once altered or destroyed, is gone forever,” they wrote.

The Virginia Supreme Court, for its part, ruled on a narrow decision as to whether the foundation had a legal right to sue. The unsigned order of the court stated that the foundation did not suffer any specific “damage other than that suffered by the general public”.

“Assuming that the city council’s decision and the proposed renovation of the property would indeed cause the foundation the alleged damage,” he said, “the resulting damage is shared by the general public.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.