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It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.


The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:


Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. 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, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!


The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.


The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's 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.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are 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 midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.


The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.


Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

This map puts a modern twist on Virginia's old railroads

The tracks the Virginia Railway Express ran on today used to host all kinds of important rail service. This subway-style map tells the history of some of Virginia's railways in 1921.


The main Virginia lines heading south from DC in 1921. Image by the author.

Trains that used these tracks ran both express and local, and there were branches that ran as far out as Warrenton and beyond Fredericksburg.

The map's purple line is the Potomac, Fredericksburg, & Piedmont (PF&P) line, whose acronym was sometimes jokingly said to mean "Poor Folks and Preachers." The PF&P was a vital link to Washington from a very poor part of Virginia.

The gray line from Union Sation is the WB&A, an interurban train that linked DC to Annapolis and Baltimore.

Maps in 1921 only showed geography, making service details nearly invisible. Times and locations were only available on arcane timetables that railroad employees had to interpret.


Left: A map of the land the tracks covered. Image from the David Rumsey Collection. Right: A timetable reflecting service in that area. Image from the Official Guide to the Railways.

The genius of a subway-style map is how it combines service information with geography, both of which riders need to get from A to B. Also, while surrounding geography is important, focusing on the rails themselves is the best way to illustrate the service we once had.

Similar maps for other cities

This is part of a bigger project whose goal is to map the 1921 railroads from the entire DC and Baltimore region. It's a sequel to the map I made of the San Francisco Bay Area's railroads in 1937.


San Francisco's railroads in 1937. Image by the author.

I still have a lot of decisions to make in order to finish the DC/Baltimore map. Should it show through-car service, where some passenger cars were passed along from train to train? If so, how would I actually show it? What about service frequency: should there be a visible difference between once-a-day, all-day, and other kinds of service?

These maps are still relevant today

Even with just the southern lines from Washington complete, it's easy to see how history of the region's railroads informs contemporary planning. Just recently, VRE announced it may extend service from the Manassas Line to Haymarket, reactivating a bit of a branch that once extended out beyond Front Royal. What are the other lines that we might want to start using again?

I just wrapped up a successful Kickstarter so I can print maps like these, and hopefully others from around the country, as posters. After all, it's one thing to have this information illustrated in a JPG for transit geeks to explore, but being able to put it on a wall would mean more people would see it.

This project's goal is to open up our region's transit history and spark conversations about what was and might be again. What else should this map include to help it achieve that goal?

See the view from atop The Cairo

The Cairo is DC's oldest and tallest residential skyscraper. When it opened in 1894, policymakers were so troubled over its height that they soon enacted the District's famous height limit. 121 years later, The Cairo still towers over Dupont so much that it offers one of the city's best views.

Scroll right to view panorama. Click for larger version. All photos by the author.

The first panorama begins looking north. The patch of trees at the extreme left edge of the image are in Meridian Hill Park. Scrolling right the view shifts to look east, then turns to straight south and downtown DC. The panorama's right edge looks southwest, with the peaks of Rosslyn in the background.

This second panorama continues to pan west. Beginning with downtown on the left edge, scrolling right yields views of Rosslyn, Q Street rowhouses, and eventually the National Cathedral.

Scroll right to view panorama. Click for larger version.

Here's the view directly north:

Zoomed in on Meridian Hill:

Straight south, with the White House peeking around a corner, and the Potomac River in the distance:

16th Street downtown:

Rosslyn:

Q Street looking west:

Q Street looking east:

Scroll right to view panorama.

The Cathedral of Saint Matthew:

Scroll right to view panorama.

For more photos, see the complete album on Flickr.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

In 1968, this brochure is how people learned about Metro

WMATA adopted its initial plan for the Metrorail system in 1968. Between then and the beginning of construction in 1969, the agency published this brochure, to teach people about the coming system.


WMATA 1968 brochure. All photos from Reddit user Globalwrath.

Reddit user Globalwrath discovered the brochure, and it's a fascinating trove of historic thinking.

The last benefit on this page sounds suspiciously like sprawl.

Note future options for suburban extensions in virtually every direction, and a subway under Columbia Pike in Arlington.

"The Metro will be among the best in the world." And it was, when it was new.

What stands out to you?

Palisades' humble rec center exemplifies great park planning

In the 1930s, architects carefully planned the Palisades Recreation Center to take advantage of its location overlooking the Potomac River. 80 years later, it's still an informative model for park planning.


The Palisades Recreation Center today, looking from the north. Photo by the author.

Designers carefully planned the rec center, at 5200 Sherrier Place NW, to be more than just a collection of ball fields and playgrounds. They oriented buildings to take advantage of natural vistas, located baseball diamonds so their outfields double as public greens, and used unpretentious but beautiful architecture to balance the need for man-made structures with the surrounding natural beauty.

The result is a 13-acre green space that's as much a small national park as it is community playground.

Unlike other DC playgrounds established in the 1920s and 1930s, the Palisades rec center was designed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Public Works Administration. The rec center opened to the public on September 11th, 1936. As of a 2014 study, the field house is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

But changes began to come in 2008 with DC's first artificial turf soccer field, and continued in 2013 with a new playground. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of General Services are developing a plan to address the aging field house, as part of DPR's Play DC initiative.


A site plan for the Palisades rec center from late in 1935. Though this isn't the final plan, the building, the overlook, and the baseball field are all present. All images from the National Parks Service except where noted.

How it all happened

Thomas Chalmers Vint, an architect and landscape architect, supervised design and construction of the project between 1934 and 1936. Vint advocated the idea of having master plans for parks, to look at them comprehensively from planning through to construction. At many parks or monuments today, Vint's influence can still be seen in fine rustic buildings, bridges, and in how developed areas blend with the environment.

The NPS made park development plans mandatory in 1929. Under Vint's leadership, five-year plans became the standard for streamlining landscape preservation and park development.

At Palisades, Vint played an active role in the field house's design and setting. Plans for the site prior to Vint's involvement, from 1931, show a grouping of small buildings at the northern end of the property. That plan failed to materialize, and so community members pushed for a field house in early 1934. That coincided with Vint's move to Washington to become Chief Architect of NPS' Branch of Plans in Designs.

Planning for the new recreation center got underway in February 1935. Plans for both the playground and the building evolved, as designers tried to find a scheme that worked. They went through four different building proposals until settling on the eventual design, each plan being more informal and in harmony with nature than the one before.


An early Palisades rec center design from February 20, 1935.


A design from July 22, 1935.

The final design, dated October 1, 1935, is an asymmetrical three-part red-brick structure. The result is a building that looks informal and vernacular.


The final rec center design, approved October 4, 1935.

The grounds

Based on the building's asymmetry, its placement toward the southern end of the playground, and its orientation facing north-south, we know that every effort went into ensuring the field house did not overpower the natural beauty of the site. Instead, the building enhanced and was subservient to that beauty.

The building, along with its southern facing terrace, functions as a scenic overlook to the Potomac River. Palisades is the only Washington playground to have such a feature. This was, again, a result of Vint's oversight and experience.

While the overlook is the most notable feature of the site, others include a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a nature trail, and an outdoor picnic area. All are in places where they're unobtrusive and subordinate to nature. For example, the baseball infield and tennis courts are along the trolley right of way on the northeast border of the property, leaving less intense uses for the property interior.

It is particularly noteworthy that the baseball diamond's home plate is at the north end of the field, both giving residents fast access to home plate, and allowing the outfield to double as a meadow when people aren't playing baseball. We know that was intentional based on plans from 1935.


A partial site plan, dated July 17, 1935. It notes the meadow (which is the baseball field) and overlook.

Continue the legacy

The 1930s may be a long time ago, but we need good parks as much today as we did then. As DPR renovates Washington's aging parks, it will be important for today's generation of planners to think of these places in comprehensive terms, and not as only locations for active sports fields.

Washington needs strong long-term planning if it's going to manage its public resources efficiently and equitably. DPR's Play DC master plan is a good overall approach in concept. But it's still prone to piecemeal planning since DPR and DGS only plan for projects that have dedicated funding. This ad hoc approach makes it hard to create master plans, and hard to prioritize long term visions.

The Palisades Recreation Center's mid-1930s design is an example of how master planning can and should apply to Washington's recreation areas.

There's history to behold on some of DC's manhole covers

The District has thousands of manhole covers, and a lot of them offer a glimpse into the city's history. This one, for example, is from a 19th Century streetcar company that hasn't existed in over 100 years.


An extant manhole cover from the Anacostia & Potomac River Railroad. Photo by the author.

The "A&P RR" refers to the Anacostia and Potomac River Railroad, which was the fourth streetcar company to begin operation in DC. A&P ran from 1876 until 1912, when the Washington Railway and Electric Company bought it.

The manhole was almost surely for below-the-street electrical power access. A&P was the last company to switch from horse-cars to electric power, making the switch in 1900, so we can reasonably assume this cover to be from between 1900 and 1912.

This cover is on 11th Street SE, between Pennsylvania Avenue and Lincoln Park. I've seen three covers like it in the area, and another on Maryland Avenue NE, just east of 14th Street by the Checkers. Those are the only ones I know about. These locations are a bit surprising since the A&P didn't run on these streets, nor did any other streetcar. The A&P did run in 11th Street SE, but only south of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Know of any interesting manhole covers in the DC area? Mention them in the comments!

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