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History


A streetcar used to run from H Street to Berwyn Heights, near College Park

Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas' best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950's and 1960's. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920's heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.


A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.

Land speculation helped birth the streetcar

The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890's as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.

In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.

Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George's County library system's Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.

An extension to Berwyn Heights

After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn't electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to "Edison-Beach" battery-powered cars.

The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.


58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It's now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.

In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington's two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.

The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running

In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.

Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.

Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC's unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city's major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.

Architecture


Building of the Week: Terminal B/C at National airport

Ronald Reagan Washington National airport turned 75 years old this month, having served the region since president Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the first American Airlines DC-3 in 1941. Today, terminal B/C, which opened in 1997, is the focal point of the airport and an instantly recognizable part of the region's architectural heritage.


Terminal B/C at National airport. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

The most striking elements of terminal B/C, which was designed by Cesar Pelli, are its domes. Considered "Jeffersonian" in their design, each of the 54 in the terminal building is a modular, 45-foot square bay made of steel with a glass oculus at their center, according to National Airport Terminal, Pelli's book on the project.


Each Jeffersonian dome in terminal B/C is 45 feet square with a glass oculus at its center. Photo by Brian Allen.

The domes serve as a connection between the terminal and the "civic architecture of Washington DC," which is purposely visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that faces the aircraft ramp and the District, says Pelli.


Travellers can see the US capitol, other monuments and the Potomac River through terminal B/C's floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Photo by the author.

Pelli placed all of the terminal's functional elements, like ticket counters, baggage belts and restrooms, on the landside of the building to allow for the glass wall.

The domes also feature in each of terminal B/C's three piers, with nine atop the atriums at the end of each concourse.

"[The terminal] has a kind of industrialized Gothic quality inside," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in the book. "The architect has managed to combine the lightness of late Gothic architecture with the tensile quality of twentieth-century modernism."

He notes that the design benefitted from the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority's (MWAA) desire for a terminal that had sufficient "aesthetic stature" to serve as a gateway to the US capital.

A long-needed upgrade

Terminal B/C was a long-overdue solution to the problem that was National airport. By the 1980s, the airport's three terminals—the main terminal (terminal A today), north terminal and commuter terminal (see a map here)—were outdated and overcrowded.

"It is a major horror story of modern planning," James Murphy, then head of airport policy for the then Air Transport Association and a former manager of National airport, told The Washington Post in June 1986. "You can't overstate the problems. It has the most severe facility constraints per square foot of any airport I have ever seen."

Work on a new master plan officially began in 1982, MWAA documents show. However, it was not until the formation of the airport authority in 1987 that the project moved into high gear.

MWAA approved a master plan that included terminal B/C in March 1988, less than a year after its formation. The first project, the demolition of hangar one and construction of a new parking garage, began that July.

A key consideration for the project was access from the Metro. When the station opened in 1977, it was only somewhat convenient for passengers flying out of the commuter or north terminals and a long walk through parking lots to the main terminal, which handled the bulk of airport traffic. Terminal B/C was sited where it is and designed to eliminate this inconvenience and make it easy for travellers to access the building from the rail system.

In 1989, Pelli was hired to design the new terminal that at the time was expected to cost about $200 million and open in 1994.

The same year, an interim terminal opened on the north side of National to accommodate passengers displaced by the demolition of the commuter terminal and old north terminal during construction.


A diagram of National airport with the interim terminal from the early 1990s. Photo by the author.

The terminal project encountered a setback in 1990. As it was laid out, the new building would obstruct the view of the threshold of one of National airport's three runways from the old control tower atop the main terminal. The issue was rectified by the addition of a new tower to terminal B/C.

Pelli unveiled four potential designs for the terminal in early 1992. Later that year, MWAA selected the one dubbed "Jeffersonian Domes" but was forced to scale down the plans due to airline and congressional concerns about rapidly rising costs that had nearly doubled to $400 million by that time.


The four proposed designs for terminal B/C at National airport, the ultimate Jeffersonian dome design is in the bottom right. Image from National Airport Terminal by Cesar Pelli.

Construction began on terminal B/C in November 1993 and took nearly four years, with the facility opening on July 27, 1997—three years late and about $250 million more than originally expected.


A US Airways map of the new north terminal, terminal B/C today, from 1997. Photo by the author.

Adapting for more passengers

National airport again faces congestion issues. Passenger traffic increased by nearly six million to 23 million from 2009 to 2015, placing strain on facilities that were designed to handle roughly 17 to 18 million people annually.

MWAA plans to build a new commuter concourse on the north side of the airport replacing gate 35X, which is the bain of many passengers flying on small regional aircraft. The concourse will replace 14 remote aircraft parking positions with the same number of gates with jetways.


Outline of the planned commuter concourse at National airport. Photo by MWAA.

The concourse has been planned since at least 1998, when the authority approved a regional concourse on the same site for then US Airways. The project was cancelled later the same year as the airline faced financial difficulties.

MWAA also plans to move national hall—the hall with Pelli's floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the tarmac and capital—in terminal B/C behind security in order to reduce chokepoints at the entrance to each pier and ease passenger connections between the concourses.

The new concourse and reconfiguration of national hall will be the first major changes to Pelli's iconic terminal B/C.

History


Watch how cities have spread over the last 6000 years

Those of us who love cities might think of the world as a collection of them, but it obviously wasn't always that way. This video shows a timeline of how cities popped up and spread across the globe, starting with Mesopotamia in 3700 BC.


Watch cities pop up as humans move across the globe. Video by Max Galka.

Max Galka of Metrocosm used extensive data on urban settlements recently out of Yale University to create the video. In it, cities appear at the time they were first documented, with the earliest cities' dots being yellow and the newest ones being red.

Galka also gives context by noting different historic events at the bottom of the map, like the beginning of the Egyptian Kingdom and the formation of different dynasties in China.

The first North American city that appears on the map is St. Louis, in 1000 AD, about a hundred years before the first crusade.

What surprises you about this video map?

Development


A new owner bought my apartment and wanted to tear it down. Here's how I ended up owning the place.

In 2001 my landlord sold my apartment complex to the National Cathedral. It wanted to replace our apartments with a visitors' center. I managed to stay put and buy my unit because of a DC law called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA).


The author's building. Image from Google Maps.

TOPA gives tenants' associations the right to refuse contracted sales of their buildings and to purchase them instead for the contracted sale prices. There are lots of TOPA stories. This one is mine.

I learned about the sale of my building from the Northwest Current. When I read the headline my stomach dropped. I'd only been in my apartment for a year. It was affordable, close to work, and pet friendly. I had also just adopted a dog. I didn't know if I could find another pet-friendly building nearby.

My fears weren't unfounded. Tenants are usually vulnerable during building sales. In many cities new owners can institute steep rent hikes, refuse to renew leases, or convert to condo. They can even tear buildings down. Fortunately, as I would find out, DC has protections against these tactics.

A few days later several of my fellow tenants organized a meeting in the alley behind our property. They explained the TOPA process and the rights it gives tenants. It sounded fantastical to me. The most I'd ever gotten as a tenant was an $80 check from a landlord who waited 4 days to fix my broken stove. And, he only issued it after I researched the housing code and told him he was legally required to reimburse me.

Here's how TOPA works

When residential property is sold in D.C. landlords are required to give tenants a TOPA Notice, or Offer of Sale, which informs them that they may refuse the sale and purchase the property instead for the contracted sale price.

Tenants must then incorporate as a tenants' association, if one does not already exist, and submit a letter of interest within 45 days of receiving the offer of sale. The tenants association can then request information from the landlord including floor plans, itemized operating expenses, utility rates, capital expenditures for the previous 2 years, a recent rent roll, and a list of vacant apartments.

The tenants' association then has a 120 day period to exercise their right of first refusal and negotiate to purchase the property. If the tenants' association signs a contract with a deposit they have an additional 120 days to secure financing. After the purchase is complete the tenants' association can convert to condominium or co-operative or remain rental.

My conversion experience

My tenants' association decided to refuse our sale. Our biggest hurdle was finding the 26 million dollars necessary to match the initial sale price.

The city provides loans and technical assistance to help majority low income tenants' associations purchase their buildings, but we weren't eligible since most of us were professionals. Private loans weren't an option either. As a new tenants' association we didn't have a bank account or credit history. We would need a developer to help us buy the property.

The process of selecting a developer usually involves substantial 'horse-trading.' For their part tenants want low/stable housing costs. In buildings converting to condo, like ours, that meant below-market prices for our units. Tenants also want repairs their landlords often neglected to make for years. In our case we needed new boilers, repairs to decaying joists, increased electric voltage, and new plumbing risers.

For their part, developers want to make a profit, and the best way to do that in buildings where tenants want to convert to condo, is to secure some empty units that can be sold at market rates. As such, developers negotiate for the right to offer tenants a buyout, a sum of money a tenant takes in exchange for relinquishing rights to her unit.

My tenants' association found a developer and converted to condominium in late 2002. Just over 30% of my fellow tenants stayed put. Another 30% took buyouts ($7,000 for studios, $10,000 for 1-bedrooms, and $12,000 for 2-bedrooms). The remaining units were vacant at the time of conversion.

I purchased my 1-bedroom unit for $162,000. For me the TOPA process was both exhilarating and terrifying. I loved my condo and my neighborhood. The Cathedral was my front yard. I could walk to work and the grocery store. And, suddenly I felt like I lived in a small village instead of an anonymous city. My fellow tenant convertors and I walked each other's dogs, swapped spare keys, shared drinks (and hangovers), and helped each other through heartaches, job losses, and the like.

But, I was also worried. As an academic I wondered how I would pay my mortgage if I didn't get tenure, and whether I'd be able to sell the condo quickly if I needed to. I also worried that I'd be house poor—able to make the mortgage but scrimping to cover everything else. My unit was in poor shape: 20 year old carpet, peeling wall paper, grungy cabinets and a stove that wasn't up to code.

Looking back, I laugh at my worries. Although I paid a below market price, I worried the market was out of control and that my unit was over-valued. Little did I know that property values would appreciate rapidly after I purchased my unit and that its value would never fall below my purchase price, even during the recession. At the end of the day, I was lucky. My building was sold at a favorable time and my tenants' association leaders (Laura, Matthew, Patty and Stephen) were tenacious.

Classifying TOPA

TOPA doesn't always work so well. The process is also very different in buildings that opt to remain rental because of the city's rent control statute. I will explore these issues in future posts, but it's worth considering here what makes TOPA so powerful.

First, TOPA gives tenants a legal way to stay put when their apartments are sold. Although building sales can happen at any time, they are especially common during gentrification. In fact, the city council introduced the TOPA statute in 1979 in response to a then ongoing condo conversion boom associated with gentrification near downtown.

Tenants who can't afford homeownership can also use TOPA to keep their buildings rental. In fact, a city statute passed at the same time as TOPA only allows a building to convert to condo if 50% (+1) of units vote to convert.

Having a legal right to stay put is exceptionally rare for tenants in the U.S. Most cities offer no or minimal protections for tenants whose buildings have been sold.

Second, TOPA gives tenants market power during gentrification. Lots of people benefit from gentrification, but tenants aren't usually among them. Cities get increased tax revenue. Landlords sell aging building for big profits. Developers turn disinvested buildings into luxury housing with price tags to match. Tenants, by contrast, are usually forced out of their homes. TOPA changes that by giving tenants market power. They can buy their units and build equity, take buyouts and use them to pay down debt or build up savings, or stay rental and negotiate with their development partner for building improvements. For once, tenants don't get the short end of the stick.

I believe affordable housing should be a right and I know the commodification of housing has contributed to rising unaffordability nationwide. Until we can convince cities to provide affordable housing, however, TOPA can at the very least give tenants a fairer shake in the game we're now playing. TOPA doesn't change the game, but it has changed who can play it.

History


Here's why Arlington's streets have the names they do

Did you know there's a rhyme and reason to how Arlington County's streets are named? Here's an explanation of Arlington's street-naming system.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.

The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.

In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.

Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.

Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.

None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.

Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.

Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.

This post first ran back in 2009. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Architecture


Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is lucky to have over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap! Visiting a public gardens can refreshing your mental, spiritual, and physical being. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.


The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens. Yes, there is green space on the National Mall and it is not all lawn! The Smithsonian Gardens are made up of 12 distinct spaces—from a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History to the contemporary, sunken Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

All are free to all visitors, and many host educational programming and docents give regular tours. One of the most informative tours is hosted by Horticulturist Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October.

Getting There: Take Metro to the Smithsonian station or any of the surrounding metro stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator, 70 Metrobus lines, and 30 Metrobus lines.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall and easily accessible is the US Botanic Garden. Along with the adjoining National Garden, Bartholdi Park, and Capitol Grounds, it has administered through the Architect of the Capitol and is not part of the Smithsonian as is commonly assumed.


The US Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden is one of the few tourist sites open on both Christmas and New Year's Day. Over the past few years, it's become more and more crowded on those dates as the secret has spread, so go early and be prepared to stand in line to view the annual holiday garden railroad display.

Getting There: Take Metro to the L'Enfant station or any of the surrounding stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator and 30 Metrobus lines, which stop in back of the Botanic Garden. Often I take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and walk across the Mall rather than switch trains.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If you want to avoid crowds, try the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays timed around Easter, but come back in late May/early June for stunning roses and later in the summer for tropical gardens that include a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

Getting There: I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk up the steep hill along Quincy Street to get to it, but there are a few buses that get you closer (the H6 and the 80).

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. The Arboretum was closed three days a week due to the recent sequester and budget cutbacks, but thanks to fundraising by the Friends of the National Arboretum, the grounds are now back open every day of the year except December 25.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is under the US Department of Agriculture and its mission has been more one of research than of public outreach and education, but with a new director just named that has given local gardeners hope of great things to come. The grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Getting there: There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but that service was infrequent and then was cut entirely a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance. (A bus route from the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station would be a dream...)

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. If you go on a weekday, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

This is the true hidden oasis of the city—a former waterlily nursery now a national park. It is also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct sun and are best viewed in mid-day during July-August.

Getting there: You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. The secluded, walled garden is on the south-facing side of the Cathedral and is downhill from it as well, giving it a great perspective on the building.


The Bishop's Close.

The garden itself is sunny and bright to support the roses and English-style perennial borders, but there are some shady quiet spots for contemplation, quiet reading, and reflection.

Getting there: Take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, both Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria are free and run by their local county parks systems. Both take an effort to access by a combination of Metro and local bus systems, but are worth it for an afternoon outside of the city. Better access by transit would increase the usefulness and value of both of these gardens to their surrounding communities.

Getting there: Go to Brookside by taking the Red Line to Glenmont and walking one mile along Glen Allen Road. To get to Green Spring, take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street and then transfer to the 29N bus towards Vienna. Get off at Little River Turnpike and Green Spring Road.

A new local nonprofit, DC Gardens, sprung up last spring to bring the profile of local public gardens in the DC region to the attention of both out-of-town tourists as well as to those who live here and only think of DC garden tourism as a once a year trip to see the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms in bloom. On the site, you can view many of our public gardens month-by-month and learn what events, festivals, and activities are going at each.

A version of this post first ran in May 2015. With the summer weather back and in full effect, we thought it an opportune time to spread the word again!

Architecture


Building of the Week: Calvary Baptist Church

The name Adolf Cluss may not ring a bell for you, but you probably know his work: he designed Eastern Market and Smithsonian's Art and Industries Building. One of his lesser-known red brick creations, typical of late 19th century architecture in the region, is the Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown.


The Calvary Baptist Church. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The red pressed brick church rises above the corner of 8th Street and H Street in northwest. A collaboration between Cluss and Joseph Wildrich von Kammerhueber, it was completed in 1866.

The church is best known for its iron spire. Likely inspired by the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany, the open design gives the elaborate metalwork a graphic quality. Cluss drew attention to the tower by giving the church asymmetrical massing.


The church with its iconic spire. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

However, the interior of the church differs from what Cluss and Kammerhueber originally designed. A fire during a blizzard in 1867 destroyed the interior in 1867, and some people say that happened because Cluss designed a faulty heating system.

After the fire, alterations to the interior during reconstruction included balconies on he north and south sides of the sanctuary, and a new organ. These additions obstruct parts of the stained glass.


The interior of the Calvary Baptist Church with the balconies blocking the original windows. Image by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

The church lacked its iconic spire for much of the 20th century. Removed after a lightning strike in 1914, it was only reconstructed along with the belfry in 2005.


The Calvary Baptist Church without its spire in the 1940s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

Progressive history

The Calvary Baptist Church and its two connected sites are protected historic buildings, owing to the church's progressive mission and contributions to the downtown DC historic district. The Baptists supported the Union during the Civil War with a mission that was—and remains—welcoming to all races and ethnicities.

This progressive policy sets the church apart from the numerous other congregations that Cluss built churches for in the Washington region from 1884 to 1886. Such forward thinking mirrored Cluss's fearless architectural ideals.

Today, the Calvary Baptist Church continues to fulfill its mission by offering bilingual services in Spanish, including marriage equality activists in its congregation, and ordaining what may have the first transgender woman to the gospel ministry.

The structure is also considered a contributing building to the Downtown Historic District, which is considered the "heart of the old downtown, with an eclectic mixture of commercial, institutional, and residential buildings…" Such a description could easily be applied to the work of Cluss himself.

An architect and engineer, Cluss designed schools, government buildings, homes, museums, and churches around Washington DC during the last decades of the 19th century. He also oversaw major civic improvements, like pacing streets, construction of sewers and planting street trees, as city engineer to the capital.

Architecture


Pike + Rose is an experiment in modern ornament

The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It's contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be "of our time."


All photos by the author.

Pike + Rose is one of the region's most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.

But although Pike + Rose isn't flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it's fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.

Ornament doesn't have to be historic-looking

In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be "of their time;" they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.

But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.

Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.

Mixed but instructive results

No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.

The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.

The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.

Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they're awkward and kitschy.

Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:

Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren't so bad.

It's easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they're bold, and it's easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say "do that," but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.

The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it's going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.

I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


You know the memorials DC has today. How should they be different in the future?

Washington remembers national events through big, permanent structures. Is that the only way to do it? A competition is asking designers to come up with alternatives that are less expensive, more interactive, and more flexible.


American Wild would bring National Parks into metro with video and audio projections. Image from NCPC.

TheMemorials for the Future competition asks designers to rethink commemmoration. Sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and an architecture nonprofit called the Van Alen Institute, they will announce four finalists tonight, from a pool of 30 semifinalists.


Neighborhood Memorials repurposes existing infrastructure.

The sponsors are looking ways out of a big problem: too many people want to leave a permanent mark on the National Mall. Unfortunately, the Mall has run out of space. Worse, designs have gotten bigger over time.

Since it's hard for Congress to say no, the competition is a way to show future memorial sponsors alternatives. Maybe a commission will consider a digital memorial instead of wedging bronze into a grass triangle. Perhaps people would rather remember their cause if it brought trees to a neglected neighborhood instead of another statue kids can't play on.


Re-frame, Re-cast, Re-tell: Freedom Stories along the Anacostia is a return to memorial trees, in underserved neighborhoods. Image from NCPC.

Judges already picked picked 30 semifinalsts, which are online. Each one consists of a single image and a paragraph that proposes a novel way to commemorate an overlooked issue.

The ideas are little out there. And most descriptions come in overcomplicated verbiage. That's OK. This kind of competition is all about coming up with novel ideas in a risk-free, low cost environment, winnowing them down, and refining them. That will start Tonight when jury of planners, architects, and administrators announces five finalists.

Spending a few thousand to explore some ideas ahead of time is a great way to not spend many millions on something suboptimal later. Think of it as design research.

Politicians have become obsessed with size.

Why change at all? Washington is known around the world for large memorials that use space and sculpture to create an emotional response.

This image is only 100 years old. Before the McMillan Commission, the National Mall was a winding garden like New York's Central Park, littered with illustrative monuments, like statues and memorial trees. The McMillan Commission's philosophy changed to a much more immersive format.


Photo by Damon Green on Flickr.

Generally, before then Washington's memorials were like the 1876 Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park: a statue with a clear message standing in a public square. Compare that to the 1921 Lincoln Memorial. It's a building at the end of a two-mile long axis. Visitors must climb steep stairs to enter into a spare, dimly-lit room, and reflect upon an ambiguous psychological portrait of the president.


Architect Henry Bacon used technology unavailable in 1876, like electric light to increase the dramatic effect. Photo by Rizwan Sheikh on Flickr.

The new way of commemorating worked. So, memorials started taking over more space. The problems was compounded as modern tastes started asking for nuanced narratives and educational elements. The embodiment of this trend is probably the FDR Memorial completed in 1997. Presenting a panoramic take of Roosevelt's presidency, it takes criticism for being scattershot fantasy and not nearly inclusive enough. All that over an enormous 7.5 acre site with expensive foundation work.

What else could we try?

Many of the design pitches reflect these trends away from a single focus and an unchanging narrative.


An installation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Image from NIH.

The most radical of the sketches crowdsource their content and last for only a short period of time. These follow in the footsteps of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which assembled thousands of grave-sized fabric quilts, hand made by a deceased person's loved one into a massive display. Aggregated, the units of personal sentimentality showed it to be a public crisis.


Homes for the Homeless, installed in Adams Morgan. Image from NCPC.

Home for the Homeless would mimic how social media's digital records in physical form around the city by giving physical spaces to tell homeless stories. MonYouMent lets people mark out their own important sites.


MonYOUment is a kit to allow anyone to make a small monument. Image from NCPC.

Others fall into what the art world calls "indexical," meaning that it's an abstract but physical connection to some event, rather than a work that's designed to represent something and therefore laden with its creators biases, like Abraham Lincoln in front of a grateful freed slave.


Content of Confinement transports a literal piece of Topaz Internment Camp to the Tidal Basin. Image from NCPC.

That's what you see in re-doing the topic of the existing granite and bronze Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II with a literal piece of the ground in an internment camp amid the Japanese-donated Cherry Blossom trees on the Tidal Basin.


Visitors would leave physical check marks in A Monument to Democracy. Image from NCPC.

The Memorial to Democracy asks visitors to assemble abstract markers into shapes, each symbolizing a person.


Climate Chronograph would disappear as Hains Point does. Image from NCPC.

Or, there's Climate Chronograph on Hains Point, which disappears under rising waters to mark out melting ice caps.


Virtual Memorial would annotate existing monuments and historic sites. Image from NCPC.

Multiple ideas rely on smartphones to remember people. Projections onto public surfaces are one way, more introverted proposals are augmented reality and audioguide options that anyone could access to interpret the world around them.


Pop-up Portal would use digital media to share experiences and current events. Image from NCPC.

More ambitious are the ones that try to use those digital programs as mediums in public. There's something powerful about showing novel content—provided it's not hijacked into Memorial McMemorialface, but what's the public benefit of content that can be accessed on a phone in bed at home?


Cultur-Altar brings a ritual space to Eastern Market. Image from NCPC

The one that I really do like is the Cultur-Altar. It's built around a ritual, rather than an object. Artifacts of memory are brought to Eastern Market during commemoration and burned afterward. The idea of letting go of artifacts while keeping a memory alive is more about building social ties than making a mark.

After all, Washington is a living city and the mall has been its most evocative when the buildings fade into backdrops, whether for rallies or picnics.

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