Greater Greater Washington

Georgetown Heating Plant: Monument or eyesore?

Last month, a consortium of investors, including the Levy Group and Four Seasons, won the auction to purchase the historic West Heating Plant on 29th Street in Georgetown. The future of the building is now in doubt, but is it worth saving as is?


Photos by the author.

No formal plans have been presented by the winning group, but you can read between the lines of their few public statements. Most tellingly, a letter from the Zoning Administrator to the group's lawyer discussed the general proposal to tear down most of the building. The request asked what the zoning implications would be to keep the 29th Street façade but tear down most of the rest of the building.

Some, like myself, think the entire building is worth saving. It's a striking example of a austere Art Deco style in a city mostly untouched by that style. The front façade, (which the group seems likely to keep anyway) is a muscular and monolithic edifice, that is detailed with a precise yet delicate brickwork borders:

The rest of the building carries on that muscular hulk:

But the problem is, there is simply no way to get natural light into the building as it is currently structured.


Photo from Jones Lang LaSalle.

Yes, there are eight long windows on the north and south sides, but behind each window is a giant steel frame blocking the light. The frames are structural, so they cannot be easily removed.

I have seen some plans (not from the winning group) calling for a giant atrium to bring light in, but that would limit the roof usage and remove a good deal of square footage within the building.

Some simply think people like me are nuts and that the building is an eyesore. The very traits I find appealing can be just as easily seen as looming and oppressive.

What do you think? Should the new owners be forced to save all four façades? Or should they be allowed to tear down most of the building and simply keep the 29th Street side?

Click here for more pictures of the building.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

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Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  

Comments

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The Lincoln Memorial of utilities.

by Steve on Apr 25, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

Would make a great Apple store.

by spookiness on Apr 25, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

It'd be cool for a museum a la the Tate Modern and how that was repurposed but that's not really in the cards. I don't what other uses would be suitable for the type of preservation you want.

by drumz on Apr 25, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

Some, like myself, think the entire building is worth saving. It's a striking example of a austere Art Deco style in a city mostly untouched by that style.

Looks like a Pepco power substation made love to a grain silo.

by oboe on Apr 25, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

It's sorta meh to me. I appreciate the aesthetic, but it would need some work to improve the facade to make it habitable for residents. It certainly doesn't read Georgetown to me at all right now. At the very least, they should salvage the brick and reincorporate it into the design.

by Alan B. on Apr 25, 2013 10:27 am • linkreport

If you wanted to save it, you should have bought it, or worked to have that as a condition of the sale.

Now, it's not yours, so, you just have to wait and see what the owner does with it.

by Jasper on Apr 25, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

Aesthetically, I'm a fan for some of the same reasons you mentioned. It is clear that its design and structure is at odds, probably irredeemably so, with turning it into the OMGMixedUseRetailAndCondos that appears to have become synonymous with "good urbanism" in some circles. My answer would be that not everything new or redeveloped in a city needs to be a WalkUP or mixed-use supercomplex. Even in an upscale/high-property value neighborhood with decent transit connections.

The trouble here, of course, is that there's not too many lucrative things you can do with a structure like this. Even if you're getting it from relatively cheap, between the remediation costs and the commercial property taxes, it's going to be a costly proposition. Still, I think there are some uses to which this building could be put in more or less its current configuration. Profitable uses, though? I'm drawing a blank.

by Dizzy on Apr 25, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Given that the owners wil want to build condos or expand the four seasons, I don't see how it can be saved.

And honestly, this is a great case for fascading (SP?). Much like the houses over the exxon station on the other side of Georgetown, if you open it with a lot of glass it could be very interesting and a nice entraceway to Georgetown.

by charlie on Apr 25, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

I don't think you're nuts, but saving an art deco power plant seems to stretch the purposes of historic preservation. Saving this is kind of like some of the wacky stuff our grandparents save "just because". It was purpose built for a purpose that's no longer needed. It isn't a house being rebuilt into a house. It's a powerplant that's no longer needed at this location and it should make way for something useful on the site.

by ah on Apr 25, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

@drumz

Something like The Tate was the one thing I could come up with, but this town isn't big or avant garde enough for both the Hirshhorn and a Tate II. Some other sort of museum would be nice - perhaps we could convince one of the myriad identity interest groups clamoring for a X-American History Museum on the Mall to take a look at this location. Georgetown's a prime tourist draw as it is...

by Dizzy on Apr 25, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

If this were being built today, it seems to me that people here (myself included) would complain that it is another faceless, monolithic, modern building that kills the vibrancy of the surrounding area.

by engrish_major on Apr 25, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

Why is there even talk to saving any of this eyesore of a structure?

by Josh on Apr 25, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

If it was a little wider it would be amazing to turn it inward so that you have like a small courtyard/atrium. You'd still need to put windows in because people will be buying the view.

by Alan B. on Apr 25, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

Dizzy,

That's my thought too actually and museum (besides turning it back to an industrial use, ha!) was the only thing I came up with. My preference for the Smithsonian is that if they're going to expand I'd rather keep its new institutions on the mall or close to it. We don't need the Smithsonian in the game of neighborhood development (though they have the anacostia community museum which does have some cool stuff).

But if you're talking about places for people to live you're going to need windows.

by drumz on Apr 25, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

This has always been one of my favorite buildings in Washington. I hope someone can at least find a way to save the “bones” of the structure.

by Matt L. on Apr 25, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

A great industrial moderne building of the 20th C. Should be preserved in appearance.

by GDubber on Apr 25, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

Wait, wait. The windows are blocked?
Why the heck do you build a building, with windows, and then block them with structural steel? Was this some crazed design compromise to make the neighborhood happy way back when?

by Distantantennas on Apr 25, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

The bones should be preserved, but it needs a creative architect to be --creative-- to adapt the structure to a new and profitable use. It could be a very unusual and unique draw (even as an adjunct use of the Four Seasons).

by Me on Apr 25, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

I would try to save the corners, with the fancy brick work, but tear out most of the rest of the building to let in more light. Perhaps try to make the new structure decco as well.

That is what i would do if I owned the building. It isn't significant enough for me to want to prevent other people from doing what they want with it though. I would just suggest.

by Richard Bourne on Apr 25, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

+1 Jasper. I do hope part if not all of it is kept, just because it is so unique. However, it's a rare site in DC, and I can certainly imagine something awesome being built there... maybe even something with windows.

It sits at the confluence of the canal and Rock Creek. Let's hope there's a public component facing the water, like a patio cafe.

by MV Jantzen on Apr 25, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

@ Me:The bones should be preserved, but it needs a creative architect to be --creative-- to adapt the structure to a new and profitable use.

I am sorry, you must not have got the memo. Creativity is not allowed in DC. DC architecture has to be as plain possible, to squeeze through the red tape of all the committees and neighborhoods clowns that think they have a say on what you get to do with your property.

by Jasper on Apr 25, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

The building was federally owned and went through the GSA disposition process. Since it was considered a historic resource, it went through the "Section 106" process and since its disposition was considered a potentially adverse effect, it was sold with a preservation easement in place. The purchasers knew this full well prior to their successful bid and acquisition.

So...there should be no sympathy for the developer if they seek dramatic relief. Creativity will be necessary. But this is a case of buyer beware, not economic hardship.

by EH on Apr 25, 2013 11:32 am • linkreport

On the one hand anything art deco seems worth saving, but on the other... well, it isn't quite a cover model, is it?

by Chris S. on Apr 25, 2013 11:49 am • linkreport

As much as I like the structure, I don't think many people would miss it. You could punch well placed windows and turn it into a moderne apartment building but you'd like a loose that heroic look. Maybe use it as a podium for a giant sculpture!

by Thayer-D on Apr 25, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

My point is that interesting architecture is good, but can it translate into business? Will the owners want to spend the money?

That area has lots of interesting architecture but has struggled to bring in tenants. The Watergate went bankrupt, and seems unable to reinvent itself much beyond townhomes for wealthy septugenarians (yes, the Atlantic is there, and some other companies, but the site is sorta sad). The Washington Harbor is currently trying to reinvent itself (with some success), but struggled for a while. The Borders on M-St closed, and the shops at G'town failed.

by SJE on Apr 25, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

I don't think there is a steel frame behind each window. I think those are perfectly functional windows, perhaps with painted-over glass.

There are drawings and construction photos on the GSA sales website for the property.

construction photo

(Above) You can see machinery through the windows.

construction photo

(Above) The frame is built around multistory boilers and would be challenging to adapt, but it isn't blocking the windows.

construction photo

(Above) Those look like windows.

There's a huge file of more drawings, which hasn't yet downloaded. But the windows don't look like they're blocked.

by David R. on Apr 25, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

I like what they did with the Power Plant in Baltimore but this building doesn't seem to have the same kind of potential for re-purposing.

by Falls Church on Apr 25, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

Ok, had a look at the structural dwgs for the building. Not entirely sure how the windows align, but I think that the engineers carefully kept the crossbraces away from the windows.

by David R. on Apr 25, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of federal buildings from that era with similar architecture all over the country. It has some historical value as early modernism, but it's not that unique. It's out of scale with the surroundings and doesn't really fit with other structures.

I'm usually willing to standup for architecturally important, but unloved structures like MLK and the Christian Science church, but this one doesn't strike me as particularly important and it seems difficult to repurpose.

by Rich on Apr 25, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of Art Deco, but really...its pretty ugly and I'm not sure you can really do anything to it because of the interior structure.

Like others have sort of said, it looks like a grain elevator. Its not in the same class as the icons of the style, like Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and so on. Those are buildings that would be immediately missed. This one, not so much.

by Another Nick on Apr 25, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

Check out today's New York Times, article on adaptive reuse of power plants!

by GDubber on Apr 25, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

I don't see anything particularly notable about the building. It's vaguely Art Deco, but the detailing is completely uninteresting, and the proportions aren't eye-catching. It's still better than most glass boxes, but the way to get a pleasing built environment isn't to simply preserve everything that is old.

But if the property has a conservation easement or other restrictions on it, then the developer should be held to them pretty strictly. I don't think it would be good for other buildings with more merit if such agreements can be re-negotiated after a sale.

by PeakVT on Apr 25, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

Does anyone miss the old Department of Employment Services building now that Newseum is there? (No.) What this town needs is more controlled demolitions. Buh-bye.

by Read Scott Martin on Apr 25, 2013 10:15 pm • linkreport

I guess I just don't see "windows" as a deal breaker. While they make a place nicer, certainly there are people who would be willing to live in Georgetown without windows if the price were right. You could build "fake" windows (looks just like a window with the curtains closed with a light source that changes during the day). Or you have a video screen embedded in the wall that projects an image from a camera placed on the opposite side of the wall. Windows have their drawbacks too. They let in noise and they're energy inefficient at times, etc...

by David C on Apr 26, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

Strangely, I have thought about this and agree that it is an "interesting" looking building, but I also noticed that for any use, they would need to do something to get more natural light INSIDE. Sooo, you would somehow have to add windows or something. That may not be practical, though, so I would say keep as much of the facade as is practical and change whatever you have to to add some light.

by JOHN HINES on Apr 26, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

My gut feeling the first time I saw it 40 years ago: Ugh! One of the few historic structures I've seen with zero esthetic appeal. It should be torn down.

And now 40 years later: Ugh! One of the few historic structures I've seen with zero esthetic appeal. It should be torn down.

by Ken on Apr 26, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

charlie -- facadism or facadomy or facadectomy are the commonly used terms.

as far as the building goes, there are worthy arguments for keeping it, and worthy arguments for changing it. I like art deco, I like commercial architecture, etc. Although Georgetown's period of architectural significance doesn't include the time period when this building was constructed, which could have influenced the determination from a Sec. 106 review.

and as many others have said, "preservation isn't always about pretty buildings". What it is about is preserving interesting and/or important buildings with various distinguishing characteristics, including architecture, design, use, etc.

But the post is pretty much moot since if the people who bought the building are reasonably intelligent, they proceeded (1) with a plan of their own; (2) knowing about the preservation easement; (3) if they did adequate due diligence, knowing how far they can get with changes and (4) just in case they need more firepower, they hired a name architect, to help them justify bigger changes probably (e.g., that's why CityCenter ostensibly hired Norman Foster's firm, same with earlier plans for the Uline by Douglas Dev., and a crappy hotel redesign--that never went anywhere--on K St. etc.)

by Richard Layman on Apr 26, 2013 3:59 pm • linkreport

charlie -- facadism or facadomy or facadectomy are the commonly used terms.

I thought the Supreme Court struck down most facadomy laws a few years back.

by oboe on Apr 26, 2013 4:07 pm • linkreport

Beautiful building, but from the street it's pretty fortress-like. I bet it would make a pretty good datacenter.

by Mike on Apr 27, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

The bigger problem in this case will be what to do with the one large and three smaller storage tanks on the property. Lot's of remediation in this project.

From an '85 article on the subject by the NYT's Paul Goldberger, citing Red Lion Row:

"For in these cases both the new and the old are trapped in something that neither building was really intended to be part of. At its most extreme, this approach yields such absurdities as the block of Pennsylvania Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets in Washington, where a row of Victorian houses has been tacked, like wallpaper, onto the front of a sleek glass office block, a juxtaposition that manages the neat trick of making both the old and the new sections seem equally out of place."

http://www.nytimes.com/1985/07/15/nyregion/facadism-on-the-rise-preservation-or-illusion.html?pagewanted=2

by LongTimeRez on Apr 28, 2013 7:25 pm • linkreport

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