Goodbye Chinatown, Hello Alexandria

BVA’s Chinatown Presence

On Behalf of the National Board

Note: The following is an adaptation taken from the 2010 BVA Bulletin. That article, put together by Stuart Nelson was of an article by Everett Langworthy’s* May-June 2003 Bulletin article and an earlier piece in the 50th anniversary issue in 1995. The below brings the story up-to-date.

BVA’s old home. The 131-year-old structure, shown here in 1920, is one of the city’s nonfederal historic landmarks. .Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

BVA’s old home. The 131-year-old structure, shown here in 1920, is one of the city’s nonfederal historic landmarks. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

BVA National Headquarters was originally built as a church. In 1923, major reparations were made to accommodate the International Exchange Bank. The entire time BVA owned the building the bank’s logo was left visible on the floor in the main foyer. Reliable sources contain information that the bank’s president committed suicide in one of the vaults in the basement sometime during the Great Depression.

The three-story BVA Headquarters building itself is stone-faced and was constructed in the classic revivalist style. The front of the structure features four stone columns and an impressive cornice over the front entrance. The interior measured 11,575 square feet.

For a number of years there had been interest in buying a building, but the funds had not been available. BVA purchased the structure in October 1987 after a rather extensive search. The purchase price was $2.5 million. The Association made a down payment of $1 million and mortgaged the remaining sum. Before moving in on Saturday, June 25, 1988, the BVA Board voted to install an elevator, a reception area, and a restroom on the third floor. The Association’s National HQ occupied the building, at 477 H Street NW in the Nation’s Capital, for 30 years.

During the Association’s occupancy the most dramatic changes affecting the area around BVA Headquarters have occurred within the past 10-15 years. The completion and inauguration of what is now the Verizon Center, home of the Washington Wizards basketball team and Washington Capitals hockey franchise, began a major revitalization and redevelopment effort in Chinatown.

A handful of high-rise luxury apartment structures now surround the building, one of which replaced a parking lot previously used by BVA staffers and located directly behind the building. A $200 million project two blocks west on H Street developed 926,250 square feet into a retail, entertainment, and residential area, including a multiplex cinema, restaurants, stores, a health club, a medical clinic, a bowling alley, and a five-floor underground parking garage.

Although the HQ was located in the Chinatown section of downtown Washington, DC, at the corner of 5th and H Streets Northwest, the building was 13 long blocks from the U.S. Capitol in one direction and another long 13 from the White House moving in the other direction; so travel to these points was by the Metro or taxi.

In 1990 BVA received a bequest from an individual named Dolly Green, who had recently passed away. The bequest was in the amount of 4.5 million dollars. The Board voted to pay off the mortgage and place the remainder of the Dolly Green bequest in conservative investments.

Like all old structures, the maintenance and upkeep of BVA National Headquarters had become an expensive and ongoing, never-ending task. The building was an essential part of BVA’s history, and served the Association for a good 30 years. From 2010 to 2013 the National Board discussed with the past executive director Tom Miller how the BVA building was costing more and more each year in maintenance and draining money away from the growing problem with the general fund revenue decreasing and being a heavy detractor to balance the Association’s budget.

Being a 131 year-old “historic building” it was typical of buildings as old. The building had a leaking roof, an almost non -existent heating system, an inefficient costly air conditioning system, and an elevator that broke down about every two months. Also, the elevator only serviced the rear office spaces leaving the front office spaces non-accessible for wheelchairs. The windows did not provide an adequate seal from the outside elements. The staff employees actually used to have to clear ice off the inside of their office windows! With the leaking roof the interior walls seemed to be moist during rainy days.

Not considering the anticipated cost of major repairs the upkeep to the building was costing BVA an extremely burdensome unexpected building maintenance cost each year. With the age of the building the National Board was never able to anticipate which part of the building would be the next debate as to a budget expense item.

The National Board would have huge discussions about all the costs of trying to update various failing systems, plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning.

Anyway, the City would not allow any changes to the outside of the building; no additions, not even new windows without special historic city permits for work on the building. The Real Estate agent came to our March board meetings and from building inspections they estimated huge costs to repair and update the old building. National Board after reviewing many alternatives decided it best and financially necessary to sell the building. It was deemed appropriate and in the best interest of the Association. After all, with renovations BVA would have needed to lease and move into temporary space for approximately two years and without renovations it could potentially become a health hazard to the employees.

During the BVA National convention, in 2014, it was explained to the membership assembled at the convention the reasoning behind and the need to place the Building on the market. With a purchase price in 1987 of 2.5 million dollars and with the growth of the Chinatown area of D.C. it was decided to look for serious bids of 5 million dollars. Several bids were made but none at 5 million dollars. During the BVA 2015 National convention in Louisville, Kentucky the National Board was able to announce that the building had been sold at the sale price of 5.4 million dollars. Of course, less all fees, stamps, realtors, and all other cost associated with the sale of real-estate the full 5.4 million didn’t get bankrolled.

The BVA National Bylaws provide that the National Board may establish a Building Fund for the purpose of constructing or purchasing a building for the Association's National Headquarters. The National Board decided to secure 4 million dollars, from the sale of the Building, a portion of which is intended for the future purchase of a replacement building. One million dollars from the sale was invested in the Association’s investment fund for operating purposes to cover operating deficits until fundraising initiatives can show returns. In review of financials which are available on the Association’s website show contribution revenue over the past seven years to be 2011: 5.1 million; 2012: 4.1 million; 2013: 3.3 million; 2014: 5.3 million; 2015: 3.5 million; then in 2016: 2.2 million and in 2017: 2.6 million. Over the past seven years the Association has shown positive revenue of around 4 million dollars, but during the last two years revenue to expenses has been negative due to the significant reduction in donor contributions. This of course is a constant issue being looked at by the National Board.

After the sale of the old HQ, a committee was established to search for a new HQ building, and in the meantime BVA had found temporary office space in a building owned and partly occupied by the Fleet Reserve Association. The space rented by the Association is actually less then the expenses BVA was incurring at the old HQ Building. After searching for a building several had been seriously considered, but some failed because of environmental issues, although one was perfect, but while BVA was in the process of having inspections to certify the building integrity another byer came in with an “as-is” bid taking it right out from under the Association. As time progressed it became obvious to the National Board that with contributions being barely enough to cover program service expenses, and meeting the annual budget needs it was decided by the National Board to place the search for another HQ building on hold. It was also noted by the National Board that sharing the building with a helpful and like service veteran organization had many good advantages.

Many changes are in the works at HQ. Changes that will hopefully improve the services that BVA offers our blind veteran’s community.

Currently BVA’s National HQ is located in the quaint area of (Old town) Alexandria, Virginia; 125 N. West Street, 3rd Floor, Alexandria, VA 22314; Phone: 800-669-7079. For now, BVA enjoys not having an old 131 year old building to care for, and a landlord making sure the heat is working during the cold winter days in Alexandria.

* Everett Langworthy, North Carolina Regional Group, was a former BVA Director of District 3.