Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category history

What makes a city attractive? Here's how to know for sure

Six characteristics can make any city in the world beautiful, says pop philosophy group The School of Life. This video tells us what they are.

Alain de Botton, the author of The Architecture of Happiness, founded The School of Life as a kind of think tank for everyday life.

According to the video, whether a city is pretty or ugly hinges on its balance of variety and order, how much life is on its streets, whether it brings people close together while keeping them comfortable, how much mystery exists within it, the scale of its buildings, and whether or not it's unique.

The video says these factors come from fundamental human preferences. They make it obvious that a city that's close-knit and vibrant is better than one that's full of parking lots and "soulless" skyscrapers.

DC stacks up great in some ways, and could be better in others

DC is very compact, and it's built to a human scale. For example, the video talks about squares making people feel contained but not claustrophobic, and we have our own version of squares in circles and pocket parks.

On the other hand, while many of us love the L'Enfant City, it lends itself to planned districts where there isn't any mystique. And as the video's narrator tells us, "Excessive order can be... a problem. Too much regularity can be soul destroying. Too much order feels rigid and alien. It can be bleak, relentless and harsh."

How would you apply some of these attributes of attractive cities to improving the Washington region?

Residential on top of the MLK library just doesn't work

The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.

One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.

When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.

At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.

The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.

An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Up top, more floors didn't add up

Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.

CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.

Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.

Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.

Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.

The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.

Below, a long process for what is approved

Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.

The agencies that will have a hand in the design. Chart from NCPC.

So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.

  • Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
  • If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
  • The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.

  • Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.

Walkblock of the week #1: 16th and I

In a booming city, construction is part of life. But when construction closes sidewalks it makes walking more difficult and dangerous. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a policy requiring that construction closures keep a safe path open for pedestrians and cyclists, but that often doesn't happen in reality.

Is this a "safe and convenient accomodation"? All photos by the author.

This new series, in collaboration with pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, will examine one sidewalk closure each week. I'll look at why the sidewalk is closed and how it fits with the city's policies on paper.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

Location #1: The former Third Church at 16th and I

Our first location is on the west side of 16th Street NW, north of I Street. This is the site that formerly held the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a Brutalist building that stirred up a major historic preservation fight when the church asked to demolish it. The building is gone, and a new building will rise in its place.

Meanwhile, the sidewalk is closed in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the White House, in an area with many people walking on the street.

The red line on the left shows the closed sidewalk on 16th St NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

I checked the online permits, and it appears that the construction company got the permits and signage from DDOT necessary to close the sidewalk.

Even though DDOT granted permission, this might not comply with the agency's own policies. The policy on closures, which dates to 2007 and was updated in 2014 to include bicycles, requires construction sites to maintain "a safe and convenient route for pedestrians... that is equal to the accommodation that was provided... before the blockage of the sidewalk." Despite this policy, we continue to find sidewalks closed throughout the city, making walking inconvenient, putting people on foot in serious danger, and eroding the city's image as a world-class multimodal city.

At the 16th Street site, I have routinely seen people walking in the roadway, adjacent to moving traffic. George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that sidewalk was closed because the building was being demolished. According to Branyan,

The developer expressed the need to keep the sidewalk and parking lane closed on 16th Street for unloading and deliveries. At the time, we did not see placing pedestrians in the roadway a viable option, and we considered it safest to direct pedestrians to the opposite sidewalk.
While we agree that pedestrian safety is paramount, the prevalence of pedestrians walking in the street shows that the sidewalk closure is neither safe, convenient, or even well-respected. It clearly fails to meet DDOT's own policy to maintain safe and convenient access.

Both lanes of car traffic on 16th Street, however, remain open as usual; the burden of construction falls exclusively on those on foot and not at all on those in cars.

People in cars move as normal, while those on foot take a detour.

What does the future hold?

After the building's construction is complete, the church and developer plan to rebuild the sidewalk, expand the tree boxes, and plant a double row of trees where now there is just a single row. This was part of the project's zoning approval.

For this streetscape work, the sidewalk will again close, but this time there will be a barricade to let pedestrians walk in the lane next to the curb. According to Branyan, "With such heavy pedestrian traffic in this location, it was appropriate to maintain pedestrian access."

This solution provides a reasonable accommodation that is both safe and convenient. One just wonders why this wasn't part of the current construction phase as well. DDOT's policy is good; its leaders just need to take it seriously all the time and be consistent in enforcing it.

A New York sidewalk scaffold. Some DC construction projects also build these, but many don't. Photo by Matt Green on Flickr.

Where the policy works: New York

DC is a great place to walk, but sidewalk closures make walking less safe and send a clear message to people walking that they are not a priority in DC. New York City, on the other hand, has made a clear and visible policy to keep sidewalks open during all stages of construction, including demolition. That sends an explicit message that walking is a top priority there.

Let's learn from another world class city, and make DC an even better place to walk.

The five best Brutalist buildings in DC

Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.

CFPB wide
The CFPB building. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

In English, "brutal" architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where "brut" means wild, rough, or unfinished: "brut" Champagnes haven't been sweetened with added sugar.

Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel's flexibility with concrete's rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures "brut," thus inspiring "Brutalism."

"It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them," writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. "But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues.... The earnestness of the best Brutalism—the belief in the power of architecture that it represents—continues to be inspiring."

Brutalism's brash idealism—its emphasis on big and bold shapes, honest use of mass-produced materials, and rejection of elitist finery—combined with its (yes) low costs to make an irresistible choice for its era's expanding government bureaucracies. Brutalism was "authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before US attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms," write Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.

The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.

But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism's sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.

1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.

Photo by camera_obscura [busy] on Flickr.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.

The "Great Society Subway," as Zach Schrag's landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital's majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.

The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro's design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.

2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).

This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.

The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they "would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building."

3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.


The AIA's headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington's grandest private houses. Although it's hardly visible from the street, the building's dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.

4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.

Sunderland Building

Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor's wide porches keep the fašades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.

5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner

Board formed concrete

This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade's irregular, flowing texture and drilled "nail holes" read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it's entirely concrete.

"Board-formed concrete" takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—the wooden "formwork" that encased the concrete when it was being poured left its mark, and here, in a hallmark of Brutalism's attention to process, the architects have celebrated this artifact.

Honorable mentions

In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one's located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.

1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.

Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles' soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.

2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.

Photo by krossbow on Flickr.

Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct's requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building's prow.

The Air and Space Museum needs a new skin

In the four decades after it opened, the National Air and Space Museum has become one of Washington's most well-loved attractions. Its building hasn't aged so well.

The window walls are outdated, skylights leak, the mechanical systems are dying, and the terraces are leaking into the basement car storage. But much worse than that, the stones that clad the building are bowing and cracking, which threaten to make it uninhabitable.

Photo by Terry (╬▒) on Flickr.

Usually, there's nothing wrong with getting wrinkly at 40, but here, the 12,000 stone panels are pretty much the only thing keeping water out of the building. When they deform, they expose the building to more and bigger leaks. They could also break and fall onto someone.

We think of stone as unfailingly solid. But, like in most buildings built after 1900, the stones at the Air and Space Museum form a veneer that carries no weight. This approach has worked quite well in most cases, but if the stones are too thin, or installed the wrong way, they can deteriorate.

When thin stones fail

The museum's stones are 5 feet long, 2½ feet high, but only 1¼ inches thick. Beginning in the 1950s, engineers and architects tried to apply stone as thinly as possible to make buildings more cost-efficient.

Things went well for denser stones like granite and on buildings in warmer climates. But beginning in the 1970s, spectacular failures started to occur when soft marble covered a building in a cold climate, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki or the Standard Oil Building in Chicago.

The stones started bowing due to a phenomenon called "thermal hysteresis."

Imagine a slab of stone sitting in the sun. One side gets warm from the sunshine, while the other does not. The sunny side expands and contracts differently from the other. If the stone is too thin, the flexing can damage the crystalline structure.

The warping is visible when the sun hits the panels at a low angle. Image from Google Maps.

Stone comes to the National Mall

The Air and Space Museum is clad in a stone called "Tennessee pink marble," although it's technically not marble, but a particularly crystallized form of limestone.

John Russell Pope introduced the stone to the National Mall with his 1941 National Gallery of Art. The warm color and faintly glittering texture was a welcome alternative to icy marble, dull limestone, and harsh granite. Because the National Air and Space Museum was across from the National Gallery, the Commission of Fine Arts pushed its architect, Gyo Obata, to match it.

The south side elevation shows more damage where the tiles are more exposed to sun.

But Pope used stones four to eight inches thick and installed them in a heavy and redundant way. IM Pei's stonework on the 1978 East Wing also had serious problems, but those stones were 3 inches thick and the problems primarily came from the way the stones hung on the building, which the Gallery was able to fix.

That will not be possible at the Air and Space Museum.

Section drawing of how the stones sit on the steel frame.

Too thin is just the beginning

The panels are pinned together end to end through holes drilled through the stone. As the panels warp at different rates, stainless steel rods apply enormous pressure to an extremely thin layer of stone. The brittle stone is liable to crack and even shed pieces.

The stones also sit on metal rails connected directly to the steel frame, so unlike with the National Gallery buildings, they're subject to the frame's motion. Already by the 1980s the Smithsonian had to widen the joints between the stones to reduce damage.

As the stone cracks, an inner cavity opens to the elements. Normal buildings have a membrane or second wall to prevent moisture from moving through the outer walls. Here, the only protection is foam insulation sprayed onto the inner face of the stone.

Finally, between the stones and walls of the exhibition halls is a large open space that carries used air back to the ventilation system. This means that the thin stones are the only thing between inside and outside. Ironically, reconstruction architect Larry Barr remarked that the constant airflow was probably the only reason there wasn't severe water damage or a mold problem. Moisture could simply never accumulate with the continuous flow of dryer air.

Some solutions are obvious, others require tough choices

The building needs a new facade, new windows, new equipment, and repairs to the terraces. You shouldn't have to renovate a building, let alone a monumental one so soon, but the renovation offers the opportunity to correct 40-year-old mistakes and build for at least another hundred.

In the 1970s, inflation encouraged cost-cutting and buildings were adding elaborate mechanical systems long before their performance was understood. Sustainability was not yet a concern for architects. The museum, which had stalled for two decades, was then rushed to be ready for the 1976 United States Bicentennial and opened days before the 4th of July.

Earlier design for the museum. Image from the Commission of Fine Arts / HOK.

But building technology has improved a lot, so there is a silver lining. Fixing a relatively typical problem like the terrace waterproofing affords the opportunity to replace it with more proven systems, brush up the planting, and improve circulation around the site.

Much better glass technology including durable films to block unwanted radiation, newer seals, and better insulation would make for a better experience on cold days and muggy afternoons. The design team is even considering installing solar panels onto the roof, reducing carbon footprint and partially shading some of the skylights.

Other projects, such as redesigning the entrance for security purposes, offers the opportunity to make the building's entrance more engaging. A similar level of attention could be paid to the Independence Avenue side of the museum, which stands out as particularly pedestrian-unfriendly.

The big decision is how to replace the stone and its supporting system. The museum asked Quinn Evans Architects to prepare for a reconstruction of the exterior, in four options: thicker Tennessee stone, sturdier pink granite, a ceramic system, or titanium. The latter two would bring new materials to the Mall and disrupt the match between this and the National Gallery, but would be more resilient and arguably interpret the building's content better than stone.

Four possible options for replacing the stone.

The four options are deceptive, because of the wide range of textures possible with each material. Titanium can come in flat, smooth panels, or it can be scalier, like the titanium used on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Ceramic systems, too, can take a wide range of textures and forms. The options go beyond just copying the 2.5' by 5' stones as the rendering above suggests.

In any event, it makes little sense to fret over preserving the architecture. It is not a universally loved building. In a chat about America's landmarks, Stanley Tigerman characterized it as "not even architecturally interesting," pointing out that the building's content occupies a more prominent role in the memory of Americans than the architecture itself

Perhaps a little bit more ambition and thought can mean we needn't repeat this renovation in 2055.

Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC

Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.

In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.

Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.

The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.

When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.

By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.

And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.

A block of spacious front yards

Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.

Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from

The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.

An alley out of nowhere

One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.

The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from

From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.

An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek

In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.

Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.

In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.

Photo from the National Park Service.

Indentations in the land mark the ghost road

Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.

The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.

Map by the author. GIS data from

Rock Creek Ford Road branching off from Fort Stevens Drive.

The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.

The old narrow road as it met the turnpike that is now Georgia Avenue.

1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.

The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from

From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.

The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.

Map by the author. GIS data from

The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.

The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.

DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.

You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.

The Kennedy Center is isolated from the rest of DC, but it can't fix the problem by itself

The Kennedy Center is getting a great addition, but the design throws a spotlight on the institution's physical isolation from the rest of the city.

Proposal seen from the Roosevelt Bridge. Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

The new 60,000-square foot building will include a large base tucked under an intensive green roof and three house-sized pavilions made of glass and ultra-white concrete. Two pavilions would sit on land, while the third would literally float in the Potomac.

The new design cuts the Kennedy Center off from the rest of the city

If I were to pick a word to describe the project, it'd be "islands." To me, the project creates a string of beautiful islands near the Kennedy Center.

Unfortunately, my word choice is also an appropriate metaphor for the Center's relationship with DC's fabric.

In J. G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island, an architect crashes on a London highway, stranding himself alone on a median. Penned in by speeding traffic, he can't leave. Unable to get anyone's attention, he watches as the city hum along without him. He ends up realizing he can't get out and makes do with his tiny domain.

Ballard's story is satire, but it's not that far from what has happened at the Kennedy Center.

On one side of the building, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway's flow keeps the Potomac in sight but out of reach. On the other, a vast highway trench stands between the Center, downtown, and the national memorials. A visitor could spend an evening at the Kennedy Center and come away feeling more tied to Rosslyn than the District.

A beautiful plan proves too expensive

When Congress created the Kennedy Center, federal leaders had a bold vision to disperse the city and rebuild it around a series of highways. The I-66 trench is one of the few parts of that project that ever got built, a small piece of the inner beltway.

Even before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, writers were fighting for a less dislocated site. The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, went after the Center's car-dependent design in a 1965 column. After its construction, proposals to make a connection other than an off-ramp came from every direction for years.

The closest DC has come to bridging the gap between the arts center and downtown came in a 2003 plan designed by Rafael Vi˝oly. It proposed extending E Street out to a monumental plaza on a deck, with I-66 below. Buildings on each side of the connection would have served two of the Center's most cramped activities: arts education and rehearsal.

But decks over transportation infrastructure are hugely expensive, even for the modest buildings proposed. The plan required $400M in federal funding to reconstruct the intersection, and it would cover only a fraction of the I-66 spaghetti. After the Iraq War, the money dried up and the Kennedy Center decided to make do.

The two land pavilions frame the Lincoln Memorial, but how do you get there? Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

A more pragmatic design

In 2012, the Center asked New York architect Steven Holl to design a scheme that would at least fulfill its needs for practice facilities, multipurpose rooms, bus parking, and offices. Atop the building, a new park would pull do double-duty as an amphitheater for free simulcasts of performances inside. In general, the spaces support the more diverse cultural offerings that have become the norm for arts institutions since the 1960s.

Plan of the proposed design, oriented so the top part of the map is east. Image from the Kennedy Center.

To connect the Center to the river, a bridge would cross the parkway to the floating pavilion, which would house a cafe and an informal event space. Pedestrians could walk from the Kennedy Center to the trail below, while people walking by could stop in for a show. It's not the grand steps Vi˝oly's plan imagined, but adding activity to a relatively isolated stretch of the trail might actually be better than building a big bridge that suffocates the trail below.

I think the new building's design would quickly earn it a place among DC's great landmarks. Holl's architecture focuses visitors' attention onto experiences of aspects of the physical world, particularly the ground, sky, water and light. For years, his designs have toyed with how they sit on the ground and how spending time in a particular place changes the one's perception of it. The floating pavilion, with views subject to the tide as much as sunlight, will be a world-class extension of Holl's history.

Model of the main "Glissando" pavilion interior. Image from the Kennedy Center.

It's a good project, and it's great that it doesn't get in the way of bigger plans.

An institution can only be as urban as its site.

At the National Capital Planning Commission's December meeting, members criticized the addition for only making a visual connection and nothing more. "It does nothing to tell you that there's an entire city on the other side of that gap," DC's acting director of planning, Ellen McCarthy, said bluntly.

Mina Wright of the US General Services Administration went further, calling the proposal an "opportunity lost to fix some ill-conceived traffic patterns, which will be fixed one day." She brought up her agency's ongoing redesign of the Potomac Hill complex which sits directly across I-66 from the Kennedy Center. To her, the design means giving up on a grander vision and limiting what the GSA can do with its site.

I-66 interchange dwarfs DC's biggest buildings and cultural centers. Image from Bing with edits by the author.

But maybe it's wrong to expect the Kennedy Center to put forth a grand vision for the site. The Vi˝oly plan offered yet another grand plaza, with swooping roads enabled by even more grade separation. It only solved connectivity issues that were within the Kennedy Center complex; it didn't provide ways for the Kennedy Center to be one point in a richer fabric.

Relying on a prestige project to patch up basic infrastructure, whether it's an arts institution or the Olympics, places a lot of trust in an organization that has narrow goals. The design process would never be as inclusive as it could be if it focused on restoring a lost neighborhood.

Image of the 2009 Framework Plan by CFA/NCPC.

Repairing the fabric is already the long-term goal, set by NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts in 2010. The problem is that their plan still assumed a massive deck over a sprawling highway even though the exorbitant costs of a smaller deck sank the last project.

The highway was the problem in 1958, it was the problem in 1971, and it's still the problem. The solution is to replace it with surface streets.

Freeway removal is not the radical idea it was in 2003. There are multiple examples of traffic dissipating into the grid at speeds safer for everyone. That's particularly true if transit substitutes capacity is replaced in a plan like Metro Forward, which would ease Virginia's capacity crunch.

A city-led infill project is the most promising way to put the Kennedy Center back into Washington. There's more potential in the site than just a grand entry. It would give DC a much richer public realm in a neighborhood trying to break out of its beige boxes. The proposed design fits well into a future that corrects the mistakes that got the Kennedy Center stuck on a freeway island.

Holl's watercolor suggests a future bridge across the highway. Can't we do better? Image by the Kennedy Center.

For whom the bell no longer tolls: Historic Anacostia

Even as we discuss living in space, vestiges of the past are all around us. Neighborhoods are have reclaimed call boxes, named restaurants after area founders, and installed heritage trail markers. Giving history center stage puts life today into proper perspective.

St. Teresa's overlooks a small garden in the rear of the church. Photos by the author.

Centuries before wrist watches or mobile phones helped us keep our schedules or Twitter gave us the news, sextons tolled church bells to tell everyone what time it was. Some churches in downtown Washington still ring their bells today, but in Anacostia, the oldest church bell tolls no more.

Built in 1879 at the corner of Washington & Fillmore Streets (now 13th & V Street SE), Saint Teresa of Avila is the oldest surviving church east of the river.

While the church remains an integral part of the neighborhood's social fabric, a bell in its rear hasn't been struck for years, according to conversations with a number of local residents.

In 1893, 14 yeas after St. Teresa's opened, the congregation acquired a bell so it could tell the community it was holding services. With no place to install the bell atop the church, St. Teresa's built a wooden tower in the rear, and with the aid of horses, a crude winch, and a series of pulleys, raised the bell to the top. The city ruled the wooden tower a fire hazard in 1965, which led to the construction of a concrete and steel bell mount. The bell rests in that mount today.

"In former days bells were endowed with a large measure of personality, and were popularly supposed to be in league with the spirits of the air and other supernatural agencies," reported the New York Times in the late 19th century. "In consequence of such beliefs many of the old cathedral bells in England and on the Continent of Europe have some fine legends or fanciful stories connected with them in which they are made to play the part of good angels or ministering spirits with voices of warning or of hope and cheer to the children of men."

Close up of the church bell in the rear of St. Teresa.

I've heard many stories about the St. Teresa bell over the years. Earlier this year, a nonagenarian fondly recalled to me that as a child, when the lamplighters came around and the evening bell rang at St. Teresa, it was cue to go home. Others have recalled that in early April 1968, the bell rang simultaneously with small-scale riots breaking out on Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road. More recent history agrees that the bell rang up until the mid-1980s and that new church leadership along with noise complaints from some of the neighborhood led to it being discontinued.

"One of the blessings about the Historic District and my block in particular was the abundance of places of worship," writes Angela Copeland, a resident of the 1300 block of W Street SE and administrator of the Great Ward Eight Facebook page. "When I first moved here, there used to be several religious parades conducted by multiple churches including St. Teresa. I don't see them so much anymore. I've visited St. Teresa. It's historic value to the neighborhood and the District's Catholic community cannot be overstated."

With the neighborhood slowly regenerating and being reborn, appeals to Anacostia's history are everywhere—for example, Anacostia was DC's first subdivision as well as the home of Frederick Douglass. As part of Anacostia reclaiming its past, should the bell ring once again?

Support Us