Ten Buildings That Changed DC
PBS recently aired an ambitious documentary presuming to tell us about the “Ten Buildings that Changed America.” After what may have been a tortuous consideration of which ten should be the ten, the producers settled on selections that ranged from Albert Kahn’s commissions for Henry Ford in Highland Park, Mich., to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The closest this list came to touching the nation’s capital was Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport – which had us thinking, what buildings in this monumental city, would be worth associating with that very strong verb, “changed?”After surveying our team, here are our nominees for the top ten architectural forms that because of—or, perhaps, regardless of—design, changed the fabric of Washington, DC.
1718 Connecticut Avenue
Situated in a legislatively preserved urban historic district, this adaptation powered a new passion for the notion that architecture matters, changing how Washington would view new construction and setting the stage for future preservation imperatives. Compatible and consistent with the neighborhood’s freely eclectic character, the upper two stories are recessed so that the building appears from the sidewalk to be the same height as its neighbors. We celebrate this building as being among the first to break free from formulaic ribbons of windows and applaud the DC Preservation League for laying the groundwork that enabled projects like this to come to fruition.
Red Lion Row: The Shops at 2000 Penn & 1818 N Street
Here’s an instance where the good and the bad nestle alongside each other. Completed in 1983, Red Lion Row (now 2000 Pennsylvania Ave, NW) is the first construction to demolish the backs of a row of 19th century townhouses (placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977) and build a shiny monolith behind it. Vilified as the Cruise Ship Building, based on the long-range perception of an ocean-liner plowing indiscriminately through a bunch of townhomes, the resulting monstrosity made the approach to adapting and reconciling with historic structures much more difficult. What’s good about it? Never again would the massing of new buildings so easily come to overwhelm and violate the historic buildings in their shadow. However, partial demolition – or partial retention, if you like – can be a valuable preservation tool. For a positive example see 1818 N Street, NW where careful attention sightlines, massing, articulation, materials and details shows that new construction can reside in harmony, side by side with historic fabric.
The Treasury Building
History recounts that President Andrew Jackson was so annoyed with Congress that he had The Treasury Building sited to obstruct his view of Capitol Hill from the White House. The result of that fury also destroyed the continuity of Pennsylvania Avenue and, by extension, the alignment of Washington’s monumental core. Built in the middle of what was the unbending line of the Avenue, it’s a fragment that represents a huge intrusion into Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the District, forever altering the symmetry of the city’s historic master design.
The soon-to-be-replaced shopping mall at Georgetown Park had a relatively short lifespan for good reason. Injected into the historic fabric of Georgetown, this largely characterless, enclosed labyrinth sucked the vitality out of Wisconsin Avenue and radically altered Georgetown from a much more charming European-style outdoor walking environment. M Street recovered somewhat with an influx of tourists, but the tension between chain-store retail and the distinctive shops along the former main thoroughfare of Wisconsin Avenue insured that neither would survive. It wasn’t a good mall and it wasn’t a good fit. What succeeds it will need to be thoughtfully and imaginatively planned to offset a hugely negative impact.
Federal Triangle was among the most significant early results of the 1926 Public Buildings Act, which let private architects work on federal projects. Following the passage of this epic role change, guidelines for developing a 70-acre site between the Capitol and the White House were forged by Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon and a Board of Architectural Consultants headed by Edward H. Bennett (Bennett, Parsons, and Frost of Chicago). An uncompromising expression of the majesty of government, Federal Triangle not only reshaped the District’s character and federal core, but defined the architectural image of American government for perhaps the next five decades.
The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building may belong on this list twice – once for what it is now and a second time for what its replacement can be. Possibly the District’s most universally reviled landmark, it’s a “designed by committee” Brutalist monolith with no connection to the city, no rapport with pedestrians, and no relationship to the grandest of all American boulevards, Pennsylvania Avenue. With a rare yield from government to the private sector, architects and developers now have the chance to create a pedestrian-friendly building or series of buildings that respect human beings, restore neighborhood vitality and a vibrant street life, and honor our national identity.
Union Station is our city’s most impressive gateway image. Rescued in 1981 by a public/private partnership and a $160 million Congressional authorization, Union Station historians declare it the biggest and most complex public/private restoration ever attempted in the U.S. Magnificently preserved with historical sensibility and modern amenities, it’s a vital transit environment that also serves as a popular entertainment and retail destination. And it has brilliantly served as a model for other major civic restorations around the country.
With its Egyptian-themed façade and whimsical gargoyles, The Cairo (now condominiums) in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood was DC’s first skyscraper and was indirectly responsible for the today’s strict building heights code in the city. Built as a 12-story hotel that looms over neighborhood buildings, the Cairo’s 1894 opening generated such opposition that Congress was successfully lobbied to limit the height of the District’s residential structures. The Height of Buildings Act of 1899 and the zoning laws that followed not only informed the skyline we know today, but arguably affected the District’s population growth and demographics along with it.
Here’s a building that ignites controversy even in our own ranks. A huge box-like structure virtually devoid of design sensibility, the Verizon Center nonetheless has been credited with galvanizing commercial success in the Chinatown neighborhoods. Nicknamed the “Phone Booth” by neighbors because of its association with telecom sponsors (it formerly was the MCI Center), the sports and entertainment mecca is considered by some to be extraneous to inevitable gentrification. And as originally feared, it did drive up rents and displace many small Chinatown businesses. But it is also widely regarded as a catalyst for a refueled economy east of 14th Street.
1801 K St
This is the re-skin that started a trend for re-skins as glass boxes. Situated in the Golden Triangle and bounded by Connecticut, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania Avenues, 1801 K used to be dominated by a single tenant—IBM—but following a downsizing in the late ’80s, was subjected to a series of complex financings and equally convoluted renovations. Today it is clad in typical jewel-box mirrored rectangles that, while impressive in the short-term, set an unfortunate, unimaginative, and persistent design standard for retooling building exteriors in the District’s office canyons.