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City Council-BAR divided on whether Alexandria should stay a red brick town

Glynn Jones Salon (image via City of Alexandria)

(Updated 4:15 p.m.) A conversation around a hair salon’s paint job forced Alexandria leaders to confront the question: should Old Town stay a red brick town?

At a meeting on Saturday, the City Council voted to overturn an earlier Board of Architectural Review (BAR) decision and will allow Glynn Jones Salon (720 King Street) to keep its painted yellow exterior.

While the original building goes back to sometime between 1891 and 1896, the brick facade painted over was constructed in 1967. Anthony Hughes, the appellant, said he didn’t realize he had to get the BAR’s permission before painting the building.

“We didn’t realize we had to go to the BAR,” Hughes said. “We looked at the block: most of King Street was painted. I thought the BAR was more for construction, like knocking walls down. It was our mistake. We painted without knowing.”

James Spencer, chair of the BAR, told the City Council that city guidelines generally take a dim view of painting masonry.

“We try to greatly discourage painting of masonry, old or new,” Spencer said. “At this one particular building, with just one swath of brick, it’s the only defining architectural character that the Board felt was worth keeping… When you paint brick, it loses its character.”

Spencer said there’s a sort of domino theory for the preservation of aesthetics.

“Our position is we want to maintain the historic character of not only the 700 block but all of the King Street block,” Spencer said. “Once you paint so much of it, how much are you willing to give away to allow the flexibility of painting?”

Steve Milone, president of the Old Town Civic Association, pointed to the city’s zoning ordinance and design guidelines that discourage painting unpainted brick. Milone also said his concern was that, if the city approved the change, it would only encourage more leniency with building renovations in the city’s historic districts.

“The Board and staff and citizens have been dealing with a lot of people just making changes without going to the BAR,” Milone said. “Approving this sets a bad precedent for gaining after-the-fact approvals of work that should have been requested.”

Those concerns found little support from the City Council, however. City Council member Kirk McPike agreed there needs to be stronger public communications around BAR requirements, the City Council voted unanimously to support reversing the BAR decision and allowing the paint job to stay.

“This is not the historic structure,” said Vice Mayor Amy Jackson. “The brick that is underneath the brick they painted is historic brick, but the brick they painted is 1960s brick. I appreciate everyone’s voice in this because it is difficult and the policy needs to be updated for more clarity.”

City Council member Alyia Gaskins said the city has already made strides to approve non-historic features on King Street, like parklets, awnings, and outdoor tables.

“We get into a place where we could really hurt and damage our retail in a space if we’re so focused on the constraints that don’t allow them to thrive an adaptive environment that is changing around them, “Gaskins said.