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Douglass House Needs Major Repairs

The Anacostia house where the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent the last two decades of his life is in need of a major facelift, according to a national conservation group.

The National Parks Conservation Association last week released a State of the Parks report, which put the price tag of the 8.5-acre site’s preservation needs at nearly $2 million.

Among the necessary improvements are a $200,000 historic landscape restoration plan, a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system costing $70,000, and the development and implementation of a $150,000 wallpaper replacement scheme, said Darcy Gamble, the NPCA’s cultural resource program manager.

The NPCA’s assessment is based on figures, Gamble said, provided to the group by the National Park Service, the agency which operates the property. (The Douglass site is one of just 12 parks in the National Park System devoted to the historical contributions of black Americans.)

At a press conference last week hosted by the NPCA, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) — who dubbed Douglass “a world historical figure,” whose life had contributed to the broadening of the definition “of the American experience” — pledged to use his perch on the House Appropriations Committee to help secure funding to “preserve this important legacy for future generations.”

Douglass, born a slave, first came to Cedar Hill — where the house is located, at 1411 W St. SE — in 1877 after purchasing it for just $6,700. During his time there, the life-long champion of blacks and women (and a rock-ribbed Republican) would serve as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia and later as U.S. minister to Haiti. He died at the home in February 1895.

As part of its resource assessment report, the NPCA evaluated the Douglass site on four categories — cultural landscapes, archeological resources, historic structures, and museum and archives. Scores ranged from a low of 43 (out of 100) for its cultural landscape (due to what the group said was an outdated landscape maintenance plan) to a high of 76 for the quality of its museum collections and archives, which include a rare oil painting, a hand-carved German clock, and even the straw hat Douglass donned on his diplomatic missions to Haiti.

Two years ago, NPCA named the Douglass home one of the country’s 10 most endangered national parks. It subsequently removed the site from the list after the NPS installed a new roof in the summer of 2002.

Exposure to ultraviolet light has damaged fragile, 19th-century photographs, and residual water damage forced the NPS to transfer Douglass’ personal collection of books to the Library of Congress, said Gable. Brown water stains now blemish the ceilings and walls, according to the NPCA.

As a result, the group claims current funding levels — of $433,000 for fiscal 2003 — are woefully inadequate and is asking Congress to ante up additional funds, not only for the Douglass site but for the national park system as a whole.

A spokesman for the National Park Service’s national capital region, however, took issue with the extent of the threat to the historic landmark.

While acknowledging that the home was in need of repair, Communications Officer Bill Line contended that the site is “not at all” in a state of dire affairs.

Line said the NPS already has a maintenance program in place and that given the nation’s current financial crunch “President Bush is doing everything he can within the available budget to focus efforts … on reducing the maintenance backlog in the national parks.”

He added: “The Frederick Douglass home … will continue to be operated in an efficient manner — a manner that maintains the home and … the integrity of the home and certainly allows visitors to have an enjoyable and educational experience.”

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