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 Ave, NW

1718 Connecticut Ave, NW

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

Red Lion Row

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.

1818 N St, NW

1818 N St, NW

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.

Georgetown Park
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

Federal Triangle

Federal Triangle
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.

FBI Headquarters

FBI Headquarters

FBI Building
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
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.

The Cairo Building

The Cairo Building

The Cairo
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.

Verizon Center
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 Street, NW

1801 K Street, NW

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.

6 Responses to “Ten Buildings That Changed DC”
  1. It’s true that when viewed from afar, the “cruise ship” of 2000 Penn lacks the sensitive relationship of 1818 N St to the townhouses at its base. But to the pedestrian on the ground, the Red Lion Row offers a far more interesting engagement, both on the sidewalk and, especially, in the rear shopping arcade. Up close, the townhouses at 1818 N turn out to be stage sets wrapping around the base of an office building. At 2000 Penn, much more of the original buildings were preserved, and you can walk inside them.

  2. Andrea Rosen says:

    I am a native of D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, but I encountered Red Lion Row (as it was then called) after nearly a decade living elsewhere. I found this exemplar of what was then called facadism a peculiarly unauthentic and disturbing approach to preservation. Are there other jurisdictions where such pretenses to preservation are employed?

    • Andrea,
      Thank you for your interest in Parchment and your inquiry. Facadism, facadomy, or even facadectomy as we have heard it called – though we prefer partial preservation or façade preservation – is not unique to DC. On the other hand, DC’s relatively strong preservation laws, which protect historic fabric, coupled with the law’s projects of special merit provisions, which allows the Mayor’s agent to approve a significant amount of demolition on historic properties, has resulted in numerous local examples for better or worse. Many of these proliferated in the first two decades of the then new law.
      Mr. Huennenkens points out that Red Lion Row does have an internal shopping street that adds some interest for those that venture inside. However, it is the long distance sightlines from across Pennsylvania Avenue to the new construction above the historic facades and the ocean liner aesthetics that are the projects major weaknesses. For partial preservation to work, it must preserve a sense of massing and streetscape, and thus, is more appropriate where the new construction is skillfully articulated, and/or the visibility is limited. Another particularly unsuccessful example is at the NE corner of 18th and F, much less so than the incorporation of the historic Winder Building into the same complex at 17th and F.
      Additional factors are the scale, detail and materials of the new construction. In both Toronto and Montreal there are many examples of significant high-rise structures from the 1990’s with incompatible facades towering above retained historic facades with as little as twelve inches of setback. For other examples (the good, the bad, and the ugly) all you need to do is Google “facadism.” Wikipedia cites examples in New York, Boston, Moscow, Paris, Bucharest, and more. San Francisco and Atlanta also have their fair share of examples.
      We still feel that when judiciously applied and adeptly handled, façade preservation can be a valuable tool that bests outright demolition or demolition by neglect. The best thing about the truly successful examples is that you hardly notice them, as they can preserve the streetscape and community while only fleetingly revealing their more modern identity.
      Best regards,
      Craig Williams
      on behalf of DMSAS

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