HPRB landmarks Hilton because it's kind of like other landmarks
This morning, HPRB reviewed the landmark nomination for the Washington Hilton. I've argued before that this building isn't worthy of being landmarked. Many people have made respectable arguments on both sides, and I respect those who feel this building is in fact iconic. But one thing worries me: the HPRB members who voted in favor spoke less about this building's particular merit, justifying their votes primarily based on this building's similarity to other modern buildings that have been landmarked, such as the HUD building and Tax Court discussed last month.
But the HUD building is a step above the Hilton. It was more notable in its time, has been more widely recognized, and its architect is much more famous. If we landmarked the Hilton just because it's almost as good as the HUD building, where will it end? Will we next landmark a building that's a bit less significant, and then another step below that? Once we have the "momentum" (a word board member John Vlach used to explain his vote) of landmarking buildings like this, will that momentum roll unstoppably through the full set of modern structures across the city? After all, I'm sure historians can come up with something nice to say about every building.
Many residents showed up to speak about the Hilton, including Dupont ANC members Will Stephens and Ramon Estrada. All opposed the Hilton's planned residential addition, but some chose to oppose the landmarking while others chose to support it while urging HPRB to include the grounds in the landmark, grounds which the new development would disturb.
Many, including the ANC, primarily objected to landmarking based on the impact of the loading docks on the neighborhood. It's already severe, and landmarking could allow the Hilton to expand without fixing the loading problem. However, HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg repeatedly cut off people who talked about loading or the proposed new residences, reminding witnesses that zoning issues are not within their purview and the specific plans for development on the site are not yet before HPRB.
A few residents did bring up issues relevant to HPRB's landmark criteria. On Criterion F, work of a creative master, resident Nancy Diamond explained how she Googled architect William Tabler, finding very little to justify calling him a "creative master." The main citation is his obituary, which calls out his designs primarily for their efficiency rather than creativity. "I don't live at a bird's eye view, I live at ground zero," said Diamond, referring to the way this hotel is mostly considered beautiful for the way it appears in aerial photographs, not for its ungainly appearance and interaction with the street at ground level.
Resident Matt McCarthy criticized the staff report for being "lukewarm at best," especially with regard to Tabler. HPO staffer Tim Dennée, author of the staff report, replied that he's not tepid about this. Despite an initial reaction he described as, "They're nominating for this William Tabler guy, who the heck is that?", further research persuaded him.
It didn't persuade HPRB member Maria Casarella, who argued that Tabler is recognized for his commercial success rather than as a creative master, and further that the building itself is "largely derivative of some of the better examples we have in town," not being especially recognized either locally or nationally. As for whether the Reagan assassination attempt is historic enough, she pointed out that it didn't really change history, and if anything, the historic site is the GW Hospital where Reagan's life was saved.
Andrew Aurbach seconded these sentiments, explaining how he, too, Googled Tabler and found little to justify considering him a "creative master." He feels that the Hilton "doesn't rise to the same level" as the HUD building landmarked last month.
Other members felt otherwise, but their comments mainly focused on the similarity of this building to others as a reason to landmark it. John Vlach spoke of "momentum" in landmarking modern buildings, and felt this "has a partnership" with other already-landmarked structures. Joseph Taylor said the Hilton "is of the category of the recent buildings we've so designated" and that, while he agrees it is an "outright bully" to the neighborhood, that he is "okay with it."
Chairman Boasberg spoke in favor of the "creative master" designation. He hadn't heard of Araldo Cossutta either when they looked at Third Church, but Boasberg learned about his important contributions through that process, and Tabler's through this. I'm not qualified to judge whether Tabler is indeed a master, but as with the overall landmarking, it's hard to know where Boasberg would draw a line about a creative master. I strongly suspect that the original "creative master" criterion was intended to capture work by the true greats of the field; if anyone is a master just because, after learning a lot about his or her work, one can point to important contributions, then most architects are masters.
The Board ultimately voted 5-2 to landmark the building under both Criterion D, for significant architecture, and Criterion F, for the work of a master. Of the five members who voted not to landmark the National Permanent Building, Casarella and Aurbach voted against the nomination, James Kane and Elinor Bacon recused themselves from the case, and Catherine Buell voted in favor.
The real fireworks for the Hilton will come when the owners present their development plan to HPRB. But the larger questions remain. What will it take for the board to decide that a specific modern building isn't distinctive? (They rejected the Permanent Building on narrow grounds, because the construction already underway had removed many of the historic features.) Under what circumstances would they demur from calling an architect a "master"? And is there any building Tersh Boasberg, Robert Sonderman, or John Vlach have ever voted, or will ever vote, not to landmark?
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