Our Favorite Buildings in D.C.

Last week, DCist posted a list of their favorite buildings in D.C, which got us thinking – what are our favorite buildings in our hometown? So we polled our staff and, in a city of great monuments and lots of limestone, got quite the interesting mix of buildings. Ranging from notorious to humble, historic to utilitarian, we respectfully submit the following selection of favorites for your consideration.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

(Former) National Trust Building
Northeast corner of 18th St and Massachusetts Ave, NW

One of the first luxury apartment buildings in DC (whose residents included Andrew Mellon), the Beaux Arts Building has beautiful limestone façades, and an elegant, eye-catching bowed corner at the major intersection. Currently, under renovation as the new home of the American Enterprise Institute, we’re optimistic that the building will emerge looking better than ever, even 100 years after it was first built.


Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Embassy of Finland
3301 Massachusetts Ave, NW

Designed between 1990-1994 by the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, the building is modest and reserved. Built with materials that are both age-old and contemporary, the design draws on vernacular architecture, earth art and geometric sculpture. The architects, hailing from a generation of Finnish designers inspired by some of the greatest modern architects, Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen, utilize compositions of geometric forms, metal screens, industrial materials, suspended sails and clear and colored glass to draw us into the densely wooded and fantastic site while revealing the building’s rationalized and functional construction. Part of Intern Architect Maja Tokic’s attraction to the building stems from the year and half she spent studying abroad in Finland.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Embassy of Germany  (formerly The Embassy of West Germany)
4645 Reservoir Rd, NW

The stepped massing works well with the topography of the site and great façade depth is achieved with the use of a suspended screen element.  For DMSAS Principal Michael Swartz, it was the first modern building he saw when he moved to DC that he really liked. Currently undergoing a complete gutting to resolve an asbestos issue, the renovation promises to preserve the brilliance of architect Egon Eiermann.


Image courtesy of Hoak, Edward and Willis Church, Masterpieces of American Architecture, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002

Image from Hoak, Edward and Willis Church, Masterpieces of American Architecture, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002

Pan American Union Building (today the headquarters of the Organization of American States)
200 17th St, NW

Paul Cret completed the Pan American Union Building in 1910. As a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts tradition in this country, the plan and elevation are brilliantly composed. But, according to Intern Architect Mark Elliott, the greatness of the design lies in its section. The clear and dignified architectural promenade leads the visitor into a vaulted entrance hall, up graceful stairs to either side of a covered courtyard, and into the beautiful grand ballroom, which culminates a wonderful spatial experience. And it is easily accessible to the public every day!


Photo courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Photo courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Pavilion
Southeast corner of 32nd and S Streets, NW

Also a favorite of President David Schwarz, Architect Chris Teigen noted that “in a city of great Classical buildings, it is a rare Modernist gem.”


Photos courtesy of Wikipedia

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia

Mayflower Hotel
1127 Connecticut Ave, NW

The Mayflower is an elegant building with a very simple fenestration. The design of the massing along Connecticut Avenue is a very distinctive way of addressing the shape of the site.  The high end materials and details are down at the street where it counts.  On the interior, we like the way the public circulation mirrors adjacent De Sales Street.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Watergate Complex (as seen from Rock Creek Parkway)
700 New Hampshire Ave, NW

This may seem like an odd choice and we expect there to be detractors, but at least one member of our team (who we will keep anonymous lest they solely bare the wrath of those for whom this building is both an aesthetic and political blemish) has always liked the sculptural quality of the massing as seen from the Potomac side. The Virginia Avenue side, however, is less favorably viewed.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant
5215 Little Falls Rd, NW

While maybe not great (it certainly is not Latrobe’s water works building in Philly), the plant is a very good example of how a utilitarian “facility” can be elevated to good design.  It has a very pleasing massing as well.


Left Photo © Philip Hu. Right photo © Calkain Cos.

Left Photo © Philip Hu. Right photo © Calkain Cos.

(Former) Schwartz’s Drugs Building
NW corner of Connecticut Ave and R Street, NW

Unfortunately, the only drugs they sell there now are sugar and caffeine (it is now a Starbucks), but it still remains one of DC’s nicest, small-scale commercial buildings.  The unbalanced nature of the building’s vertical proportions give it a slightly quirky, of charming, character. But we really like the narrow proportions of the clipped corner, especially before the single door between the two corner pilasters was covered up by the metal outdoor patio addition.


Photo © Britt Conley

Photo © Britt Conley

The National Botanical Gardens Conservatory
Northwest corner of Independence Ave and 1st St, SW

This is just a wonderful building, flooded with light and full of color and fragrance.  Associate Ted Houseknecht always finds it a very cathartic space to visit. An exotic counterpoint to the adjacent limestone buildings that line Independence Ave, this building is recommended by Ted  for all who can’t swing either the time or money for a trip to the Caribbean.


© All Rights Reserved  by bullonboyd

© All Rights Reserved by bullonboyd

Fort Reno Water Tower
3829 Donaldson Pl, NW

Designed by municipal architect Arthur Harris in a French Norman style, it was inspired by, but sometimes wrongly attributed to, Olmstead.  Located just steps away from the highest point of natural grade in Washington, you’ve got to love the motif of the weathervane (a person holding two pales of water, a la Jack and Jill).

We would love to hear from you – what are some of your favorite buildings in D.C.?

One Response to “Our Favorite Buildings in D.C.”
  1. Jesse Burleson says:

    First I want to thank you for keeping a well curated blog of your office’s projects, interests, and experiences. I enjoy reading thoughtful commentary of both structures and environments your team has the opportunity to visit – you have a captive audience.

    Although I was charmed by many places I saw in the District, the one in which I spent the most time and miss often is the enclosed courtyard designed by Norman Foster (Foster & Partners) joining the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. The building itself is a shining example of Greek revival, but the contemporary waves of glass and steel lattice over the courtyard help transform the museum space from formal and detached to elegant and welcoming. Water (which security might as well consider acid around art) floods the floors. The outside is also brought in with skylight, cafe table seating, food vendors, and greenery. I was offered respite from the murderous summer heat without having to hide from the day. As a young employee and frequent patron of art museums, I rarely find spaces like this one that truly provide a sense of belonging – where I can take my hands out from behind my back, have a conversation, or even enjoy lunch while in the presence of beautiful art and architecture. Given the versatile open floor plan, I suppose the architectural elements are few, but in this instance, simplicity is key.

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