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Architecture


Five great Art Deco buildings in DC

DC's wave of Art Deco architecture was short lived, but its influence is still all over the city today. The five structures below show the extent to which Washingtonians embraced the modern architectural style.


This Art Deco building was formerly the Home Theater, at 230 C Street NE. It's now a church. All photos by the author.

Art Deco developed in a more conservative manner in DC than other places, with architects compromising between radical modernists and traditional classicists.

In vogue when DC was expanding to accommodate federal workers in the 1930s, Art Deco used geometric shapes and bold colors, as well as machine and ancient motifs-- in particular, it drew inspiration for its more abstract details from non-western influences, especially Egyptian and Mesoamerican ones. Plastic, glass, and concrete were used in novel ways.

Federal buildings mixed Art Deco with classical design to make "Greco Deco." Commercial buildings were the most enthusiastic with Art Deco designs, though the city failed to preserve most of them. Garden apartments showed Art Deco origins on entrances and rooflines. Vertical lines along buildings give the impression of height. Pyramid-like ziggurats break rooflines. Floral and transportation motifs were popular, and the "streamline" style used minimalist lines for exaggeration.

The Deco style preserved a stubborn belief in progress through the Great Depression: the economy was ailing, its thinking wet, but the United States would recover, industry would surge, and culture would bloom. A modern inferno raged in the future, but Art Deco propagated an elegant, jazzy style, grasping the past to forge the present.


The entrance of the High Towers (1530 16th Street NW), designed by architect Alvin Aubinoe in 1938.

Around the DC area, more than 400 Art Deco structures went up between 1925 and 1945. The best-known examples in the city are the Kennedy-Warren Apartments in Cleveland Park and the Hecht Warehouse Co. building (refurbished into loft apartments and retail space) in Ivy City. For less-popular examples of Deco, the following list pulls out subtle, but striking, Deco buildings.

1. The Chambers Funeral Home, Eastern Market

For those who wanted to be buried in Art Deco, the Chambers Funeral home was built in 1932 in Eastern Market. Designed by Leroy H. Harris and developed by W.W. Chambers, it's since become an office for a rental company and features a chrome awning with metal floral motifs on its lights and facade.

2. 2412 Minnesota Avenue SE

Originally offices and stores, Frank Martinelli designed this building on Minnesota Avenue in Fairlawn in 1949, and A.G. Carozza developed it; it doesn't have an official name. The slick curves in the building resemble the Hecht Warehouse, and glass block above the entrances were a common motif in Art Deco.

3. The Majestic, 16th Street NW

One of the most appealing Art Deco apartment buildings, the Majestic apartment building on 16th street is striking. The double rows of curved bay windows, recessed entrance, and ziggurats along the roofline demand attention.

4. The Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, Calvert Street NW

The district also has an Art Deco bridge that connects Woodley Park and Adams Morgan. The Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge, built in 1935 and designed by Paul Cret, includes sculptures by Leon Hermant on its corners that combine ancient deities and modern technology. In one, a goddess races a car, and the bridge railings were done in Deco style.

A second Art Deco bridge, the Klingle Valley Bridge on Connective Avenue, includes Deco floral motifs. It was built in 1931 and designed by Paul Cret and Frank M. Masters.

5. The Library of Congress Annex, 2nd Street SE

For federal buildings, none can rival the Library of Congress Annex. Art Deco design is evident on its exterior, but its interior bursts with floral designs and painstaking ornamental design brings the building to life.

Other examples are less bold. The buildings were numerous enough to scatter across most neighborhoods in the city and pockets in Alexandria, Arlington, and Silver Spring. In the district, clusters can be found near 14th Street in Brightwood, Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan near Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, east of Glover Park, and downtown spreading east from the White House between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues.

DC's Art Deco architects

A handful of architects dominated the DC. Art Deco scene. George T. Santmyers specialized in garden apartments, designing almost 50 of them in a 14-year period. The majority of them remain in use. Joseph Abel, like Santmyers, focused on apartments and designed a dozen. John Eberson designed 13 movie theaters, but only the Silver theater in Silver Spring still functions as one. Eberson narrowly triumphed over John J. Zink, who had 11 theaters to his credit. Only one, the Uptown in Cleveland Park, remains in use as a theater.

"For many of the architects active in Washington, Art Deco represented a series of decorative elements to be combined with traditional and radical approaches, from Renaissance revival to classical to the International Style," Hanz Wirz and Richard Striner wrote in Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation's Capital, an excellent resource for information on Art Deco's development.

A map of Art Deco buildings, past and present, shows the reach of the style. Other highlights include an Art Deco influenced amusement park in Glen Echo, Maryland, the public schools of Greenbelt, Maryland, and an "America on Wheels" roller rink in Adams Morgan, now functioning as a grocery store and fitness center. D.C. isn't known for Art Deco, but when residents learn the motifs, they notice buildings cropping up in unexpected places.

The Art Deco Society of Washington also promotes the style's influence and offers tours, events, and a map of some notable (and metro accessible) Art Deco landmarks.

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Links


National links: Los Angeles' transit fight

Los Angeles County is arguing over how to spend $120 billion on transit, Cuba is not alone in neglecting communities around stadiums (hint: we do it in the US all the time), and Uber's business model doesn't work for everything. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Eva Luedin on Flickr.

LA County pushback: Politicians from more suburban jurisdictions in Los Angeles County are arguing that a recently-released 40-year/$120 billion transit plan puts too much emphasis on downtown LA, and that projects in their districts should have faster timelines for completion. The county requires a super majority on sales tax votes, so the plan's opposition is a real threat. (LA Weekly)

Stadium shame: ESPN broadcasted a baseball game from Cuba, then shamed the country on Twitter for slums just outside the ballpark. People across the United States shot back with images from this country of oft-ignored poor neighborhoods near stadiums. (Boing Boing)

A business model, lost in translation: For everyone except Uber, the Uber model for on-demand delivery apps is faltering. As venture capital funding slows down, there's a greater need to make a profit on these services, causing some to wonder if the business model is viable given the true costs. (New York Times)

Taking a Texas-sized toll: In Texas, tollways were all the rage for a time. But the operator of a major toll road east of Austin recently went bankrupt, and they're showing themselves to be a risky investment because truckers are reluctant to pay fees as high as $33 to avoid downtown rush hours. (Dow Jones Business News)

Filling our congested roadways: During rush hour, millions of seats in cars around the country are unused. In fact 85% of cars on the road have one occupant. Is there a way to use new technology to put this existing capacity to use? (Mobility Lab)

Humans in architecture drawings: Before computers and photoshop, architects had to draw their own human figures for renderings. Architect Noor Makkiya argues that drawing humans made architects more aware of how they fit with designs, and collected 21 drawings of humans by famous architects, like Leon Krier and Le Corbusier. (Fast Company)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I am co-hosting a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Ride Scout. This week, we talk about High Speed Rail and San Francisco's new Transbay Terminal with German Marshall Fund fellow Eric Eidlin.

Architecture


A future football stadium may have a moat. Is that a symbol of a sustainable future or an exclusionary past?

We don't know where a stadium for Washington's football team will go, but now there's a design. Bjarke Ingels Group, the architects engaged by Dan Snyder to design a stadium, showed a rendering to 60 Minutes, and it includes a moat. We asked our contributors what they think.


Rendering by Bjarke Ingels Group via CBS/60 Minutes.

While there has been no decision about where a stadium would go, and the National Park Service has said that (at least under the current presidential administration) the team can't locate at the RFK Stadium site unless it changes its racist name, the moat is likely designed to relate to the Anacostia River. (Though the future Loudoun Gateway Metro station, where Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe wants the team to go, also is next to a small river, Broad Run.)

Ingels is clearly thinking about the fundamental problem that a typical pro football stadium occupies acres and acres of space, mostly for parking, which sit empty up to 357 days a year (a team plays eight home games, and sometimes stadiums attract a few very large concerts or other events).

According to the Post's Jonathan O'Connell, Ingels told 60 Minutes, "Is it waste of resources to have giant facilities that are only active 10 times a year. Obviously. Therefore we have worked with our team to imagine a facility that can be active both inside and outside all year and all week—not just on a game day."

He therefore designed a park around the aforementioned moat and envisions the tailgating to happen there, rather than in parking lots. "Tailgating literally becomes a picnic in a park. It can actually make the stadium a more lively destination throughout the year without ruining the turf for the football game."

However, this still leaves open the question of where people who drive would park. Would this stadium sit among mixed-use buildings with garages that serve the occasional football game? The rendering doesn't show the larger context.

Ned Russell wrote:

I like the design. I tend to like BIG's work and I really like designs that break out of DC's somewhat sterile and overused mold. But I really want to know about how they're going to do development around the stadium.
Canaan Merchant agreed:
It's not the stadium design itself I'm worried about. It's the twin issues of what is the best use of the land where it's probably going to be built and whether or not the city (or locality where it ends up) should be expected to pay for significant part of it. Architecture is nice, but we are too early for that discussion yet.
As for the design itself, which looks a lot like my Crate and Barrel fruit bowl, Tracey Johnstone worried that it appears to be much shallower than RFK.
Why do stadium architects think EVERYONE at an event wants to sit out in full sun for hours? NO cover at all. The shallow bowl is great for people with close seats and completely sucks for those who do not.

RFK was a great venue because of the upper deck overlapped part of the lower deck and there was a VERY narrow luxury level. This stadium has the upper deck up much higher and farther back than was the case at RFK. Might as well stay home and watch the game on television. And, at least there was some cover at RFK in both levels.

Many people will (perhaps rightly) remain suspicious of anything that comes from the team, given Dan Snyder's long record of anti-fan behavior and clear incentive to squeeze a sweetheart deal out of local leaders eager to give one. To Nick Keenan, the moat is a perfect symbol of Snyder's past deeds:
When I see the moat of think of Snyder's long-running effort to put up obstacles to pedestrians walking to Fedex Field so that people are forced to pay for parking.
But Steve Seelig sounded an optimistic note:
Truly a beautiful stadium design, and one that seems to evoke some of what made RFK a great venue. Going to FedEx is akin to what it must have been like at the Altamont Rolling Stones concert. I am hopeful there is a way to preserve the tailgating has become such a large part of football, but without acres and acres of surface parking.

Newer stadiums like Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara have severely curtailed places where tailgating is permitted, but still have a huge parking footprint. Let's see if Snyder's desire to have a stadium in DC that will serve as a de facto national monument can outweigh his historical desire to make everyone pay to park.

What do you think of the design?

History


DC once had its own Arc de Triomphe

Paris's Arc de Triomphe is world famous, but did you know DC once had its own version?


Photo from the DC Public Library.

The Washington, DC Victory Arch sat on Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW.

It was a temporary structure built to commemorate the end of World War I. This photo, from 1919, shows the US Army on parade following the end of the war. Presumably the arch was made of plaster, like the White City of Chicago, and thus never intended to be permanent.

Here's another view, showing the arch from ground level.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Here are some ideas for designing NoMa's new park

The NoMa Parks Foundation just bought two acres on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) for a new large park. There are great examples of how to use the space all over DC and beyond.


The site of NoMa's new park next to the MBT. Image by the author.

"People want an area for informal recreation and relaxation," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), on the initial ideas for the park when it announced the $14 million deal earlier in January. "Something beautiful, something that really integrates with the Metropolitan Branch Trail."

There are many features that the NoMa Green, as it is tentatively called, could include. A connection between Q Street NE and the trail will almost certainly be a part of the park. Also, a flexible space like a lawn that could be used for a variety of needs, like the NoMa Summer Screen and various seasonal festivals, could fit elsewhere in the park.

NoMa BID plans to hold a community design forum with residents for the green after it hires a design team, said Jasper. This process could begin as soon as the second quarter of the year.

Canal Park in Navy Yard could inspire the NoMa Green

The five-acre Canal Park in Navy Yard offers some ideas for the NoMa Green. Opened in 2012, the space mixes programming, including a café, water feature, and seasonal ice skating rink, with a flexible lawn space that is used for various activities throughout the year.


An overview of Canal Park. Image by OLIN.

Hallie Boyce, a partner at OLIN landscape architects, says every section of Canal Park serves multiple purposes that, in many cases, are not exactly what the design team had in mind.

"The public will use a space as they deem appropriate," she says, recalling an image she saw of a kid using a sculpture as a seat to watch a movie in Canal Park. "On the one hand, you want enough programming to attract people long-term and on the other hand there is a need to have flexibility."


Canal Park's fountains and rain garden. Image by Payton Chung on Flickr.

OLIN led the design team of Canal Park, which is built on the site of a former Washington Canal. The studio has also been selected for the 11th Street Bridge Park and the redesign of Franklin Park in downtown.

There are lots of other options too

Canal Park is just one example NoMa can look to as it begins the process of designing its new green. DC is dotted with many small parks that, while often designed during an earlier period of landscape architecture, offer templates of what works and what does not.

Folger Park in Capitol Hill and Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights are two examples of good small parks in DC that Greater Greater Washington contributors suggest. The former includes ample lawns and an iconic drinking fountain and bench.

Meridian Hill Park, while larger than the NoMa space, includes a popular lawn atop the hill and a cascade fountain down the hillside to W Street NW.


The cascade fountain in Meridian Hill Park. Image by Washingtonydc on Flickr.

Boyce points to Teardrop Park and Wagner Park in New York City when asked what she thinks are good examples of well-designed small parks outside DC. The former, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is a 1.8-acre green space in lower Manhattan that includes a unique man-made rock outcropping and an open lawn nestled between residential high-rises.


Teardrop Park in New York. Image by Calvin C on Flickr.

"There's no solution you would slap down," says Boyce, emphasising the need to engage the community and take into account form, scale, and site when designing a park. "It's about context and engaging with the neighborhood and key stakeholders first to identify [what they want]."

Public Spaces


The winner of a design competition will build the WWI Memorial. Here's what that means.

Today, the sponsor of the World War I Memorial will choose the winner of its design competition, meaning we'll get a sense for what the memorial will look like in the end. Whether or not design competitions succeed depends heavily the work that goes into planning them.


Pershing Park and its memorial today. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The Memorial will go into Pershing Park, a secluded 1970s plaza at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House. Congress chose that location because it already has a memorial to General John Pershing, who led US troops in World War I.

The memorial sponsors sent out an open call for ideas last year. The winner will come from of one of the five finalists named in November 2015. After getting feedback, these five designers have revised their projects and submitted them to a jury of architects, historians, and politicians. On Tuesday (after a snow delay), the memorial commission will vote on the jury's choice.

Here's how design competitions work

Design competitions aren't part of the process for most buildings, but governments and other big institutions like them for major projects. They give those sponsoring the competition (and ultimately responsible for the building) a few options to choose from rather than picking a designer based on prior work and a business plan.

Every competition begins the same: with a design brief, a document that outlines what the sponsor wants. Then, they split into three basic formats:

  1. The most celebrated kind is an open competition where pretty much anyone can submit a design. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example, and the World War I Memorial is using this model.
  2. An invited competition, where a client looks at only a hand-picked few designers is the second type. The Lincoln Memorial is one outcome of this format.
  3. A slight variation on that is a qualified competition, where anyone can submit qualifications, out of whom a few get asked for designs. The Eisenhower Memorial followed this model, which is common for federal projects.
Most open competitions, including the World War I Memorial, have two stages. In the first, anyone can present their design in a very limited format. For the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the jury winnowed 1,200 entries to six finalist from a single drawing. Qualified competitions make the same selection by looking at past work or credentials.


Henry Bacon beat out one rival for the Lincoln Memorial, John Russell Pope. This design by Pope is closer to what the McMillan Commission envisioned. Image from the Library of Congress.

In the second round, open, qualified, and select competitions work the same. Each team works out a detailed conceptual design. In better competitions, the competitors work with the sponsor, review agencies, and constituents to refine the design. Then, at the end of this, a jury composed of stakeholders or designers picks a winner.

Well-run design competitions can have big upsides

Malcolm Reading, a design competition designer, who ran recent competitions for Gallaudet University, and the Guggenheim Helsinki, put it this way in an interview: "I would say that competitions are, in general, more meritocratic. The process itself, run properly, allows talent to rise to the top and a level of public debate and engagement that would not be possible with a direct commission."

The best example of this process working is the tightly controlled competition that brought us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Take a look at this booklet promoting the memorial. It outlines so much of what makes that design iconic: an apolitical remembrance of the dead, a list of names, and a site of personal reflection. That's interesting, because this is the design brief, written months before Maya Lin began her class assignment that eventually become an American icon.


Detail of Maya Lin's first-stage entry, showing visitors' experience at the center of the memorial and exiting. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lin realized these conceptual elements with brilliant clarity. But the competition's designer, Paul Spreiregen, had laid the groundwork for a minimalist design like hers to win. He wrote the brief to encapsulate the desires of the Veterans who commissioned it. Washington's design review agencies wanted something low, so he pushed for a landscape design in Q&As, and set up a jury of accomplished modernist designers.

History shows design competitions aren't a simple solution

Good outcomes aren't guaranteed. If a sponsor issues a bad brief, ignores problems with the site, or doesn't trust the jury, all hell can break loose.


The winning design for the World War II Memorial changed a lot. (Image from Friedrich St. Florian)

The sponsors of the World War II memorial imagined a huge project when they picked a design, including an underground museum in a floodplain. Both the design and what the commission asked for changed dramatically over years of controversy and costs.

The chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Richard Stilwell, fired the designers of the tragic winning scheme and instructed the local architect of record to execute a heroic diorama. A similarly heavy-handed client guided the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.


In the winning scheme for the the Korean War Veterans Memorial, visitors would have "walked home" between statues of troops. (Image from Lucas Architects)

The World War I Memorial designer has a lot of changes to make.

The World War I Memorial's process is mixed. The designers brought collaborators onto the design teams in the second stage for mid-point review, which is great. While the brief gives fewer aesthetic preferences than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's sponsors did, the goals of commemoration are clearer than other recent memorials.

But the memorial commission made a huge mistake when picking a site. After getting rejected from converting DC's World War I Memorial as a national one, the memorial commission went around the city's review agencies by getting Congress to pick the site.

The brief contradicts itself, encouraging designers replace the existing park because it is secluded, but also forbidding any activity-generating features and ignoring how this memorial plot connects living city around it.


Some WWI competition entrants have changed significantly already. Here's the first stage entry for "Plaza to the Forgotten War"

As a result, a surprising number of groups have spoken out against the competition. That includes the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts and the DC Historic Preservation Office, which led to designers needing to change their schemes significantly.


In the second-stage mid-review version, design now preserves more of the existing park. (Both images from Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

World War I has little political clout. Unlike World War II, there are no living veterans. Pershing Park has a lot of influential supporters. Whatever is chosen will change significantly. By proceeding without realistic about what they could do on the site, the memorial commission wasted the primary advantage of a competition: choosing a designer based on a concrete vision.

Much more goes into commemorating history than the spectacle of choosing designers. The jury, the site, and the ambitions of the sponsor are as important to a good outcome. In this case, the simplicity of competition seems to have hidden fundamental problems in the project.

History


Here's an early design for Union Station

Check out this drawing of Union Station when it was in the planning phase, waiting for Congress to give the green light for construction. It's a fun reminder that even the most grandiose of buildings go through routine planning processes.


Click for a larger version of both the drawing and the accompanying news article. Images from the Library of Congress.

Published in March of 1902, the Times Washington article announcing the coming train depot calls it "a fitting gateway for the nation's Capital City, through which for all time shall ebb and flow the tides of the world's pilgrims to the national Mecca, a fitting beginning for the new Washington."

When GGWash contributor David Cranor passed the article my way, he wondered if the project finished on time or came in on budget.

"Perhaps it will be a reality in two years," reads the article, "for great railway corporations build with magic quickness" Union Station opened in 1908, but it's not clear from the article whether the builders shared that two year expectation. And even if they did, a four year delay on such a huge project doesn't exactly stack up poorly when compared to many infrastructure projects today.

The article says Union Station itself will cost $6 million (about $166 million in today's dollars), with things like buying the land and building the accompanying rail tunnel bringing the price to $14 million (about $388 million today). If you have any information on how much was actually spent on building Union Station, please share it in the comments!


Preservation


An art deco industrial building in Georgetown could have a new use

Developers want to build a contemporary mid-rise residential tower on a prime site in Georgetown, but it'd mean tearing down a distinctive old heating plant. There might be ways to reuse the old building and build something new as well.


The West Heating Plant looking south from the C&O Canal. All images by the authors unless noted.

The West Heating Plant, which abuts Rock Creek Park on the edge of Georgetown, was built by the Federal government to provide steam heating for federal buildings in the District. Designed during World War II by architect William Dewey Foster, it opened in 1948 as one of the few examples of industrial art deco-to-moderne architecture in the District; the other is the Central Heating Plant on 13th Street SW.

The six-story structure now stands idle, having been decommissioned in 2003.

A team led by local developer Richard Levy purchased the plant from the Government Services Administration (GSA) in 2013 with plans to demolish part of the building for up to 80 luxury Four Seasons residences and use the former coal yard for a new park.

Unfortunately, preservation officials encouraged Levy's team of notable architects - British architect David Adjaye and OLIN landscape architects - to be creative with the site without preserving the building. Levy understandably leapt at the opportunity.

In a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in December, Levy outlined plans to tear down the West Heating Plant entirely. His new plan includes a 10-story tower made of blue travertine and bronze on the site of the plant, housing 60 to 70 luxury residences and the adjacent park.

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

DC has few industrial buildings and even fewer that are architecturally significant. The West Heating Plant, despite its decaying state, is significant as both a notable industrial edifice and one of the few examples of moderne architecture in the city.

Eight massive vertical windows stretching nearly the building's entire height dominate its north and south faces. A similar vertical portico dominates the 29th Street façade.


The entrance portico is an impressive vertical dominating the building's 29th Street facade.

The West Heating Plant stands out on the Georgetown skyline as one approaches from the south or east, reminiscent of the neighborhood's industrial past. Other remnants of this include the lofts in converted warehouses along the canal and the Capital Crescent Trail that was on the former Georgetown Branch railroad line.


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

The building is a worthy reminder of Georgetown's history, and an impressive example of civic architecture.

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

With or without Levy's plan to demolish the West Heating Plant, it was never really feasible to convert the existing building into residences. Floors are only located on its 29th Street side, and shoring up the columns that run up and down the building would be costly due to years of corrosion.

In addition, at 109 feet wide, the building is deeper than is preferable to get good light throughout an apartment. The design team attempted to fix this in their earlier partial-demolition proposal by adding big shafts to the center of the structure to bring in light.

To fill the building with apartments or offices, the developers would also have to add a lot of windows. This would be problematic as the brick is only loosely attached to the steel frame. Adding windows would require painstaking care and, even then, might deface the monumental qualities that give the building interest.

In other words, it is a tough sell for a residential or commercial conversion even before he exorbitant cost of cleaning up the asbestos, PCBs, and other toxins scattered throughout the site.

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

The original appeal for developers was that the West Heating Plant sits on just a fifth of the lot. When the GSA sold the facility, it anticipated the site would receive a waterfront zone district, W-2, allowing for 362,000 square feet of development up to 60 feet high, in its environmental assessment.


The West Heating Plant only sits on about a fifth of the lot. Image by Google Maps.

However, adaptively reusing the plant would offer only up to 143,600 square feet of space. While the building is tall, it only has six floors with high ceilings—13 feet on most floors and 22 feet on the first—that allows for less density than the height suggests.

To address this disconnect, the GSA imagined that a developer would build a second flat and fat structure on the coal yard south of the heating plant that would peep over the Whitehurst Freeway viaduct. Since the conversion would ruin the dramatic interior spaces and significantly alter the monolithic exterior, it would have been a pretty hollow deal for developers and preservation interests alike.


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

Levy's demolition plan is a compromise to the competing expectations of the developers and neighbors: there's no second building and the new 10 stories of apartment fit into the existing massing. That's more floors than with an adaptive reuse but less density and more open space than the GSA's scenario. The height and the park secure the great views that high-end buyers will pay extra for and the park has quieted a lot of neighborhood concerns.

It is a clever solution but it is not the only one. There are options that preserve the historic plant and also get a distinctive new apartment building.

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

If height is not really an issue, Levy could build a new 10-story building in the coal yard and reuse the actual plant for something much more creative.

There are ways to reuse the West Heating Plant that work in big messy spaces. Contemporary art institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, are a good example, especially if the first floor is open and free to the public, effectively making it an extension of the streetscape.


The Tate Modern gallery is located in the former Bankside Power Station in London. Image by Alquiler de Coches on Flickr.

The Tate Modern has been a staple of the London tourist circuit since its turbine hall hosted a series of blockbuster exhibitions shortly after it opened. This has prompted demands for contemporary art museums elsewhere with large spaces that can handle rough treatment, like the Dia:Beacon near New York City.


The turbine hall at the Tate Modern. Image by Jennifer Morrow on Flickr.

The West Heating Plant's boiler room is an ideal candidate for such a space, something the Post recommended in 2012. While only about a third the size of the Tate's 36,500 square foot turbine room, it is much bigger than the District's last proposed contemporary art museum in the Franklin School. If two floors of the plant were cleared out, Adolf Cluss's landmark school would fit comfortably in the boiler room.

The plant could also be used as a home for one of DC's excellent theaters. A big box with three stories for flies could make the cornerstone of a spectacular alternative theater venue. The industrial patina, few windows and big spaces of the old plant again could be more of an asset than a drawback.

Realistically, to keep the old and add the new, any reuse of the site would have to assume a new building on the coal yard. This would likely mean more height and density on the site in order to allow development of as much of the 362,000 square feet allowed. It would also mean no new large park.

Dropping the park from the Levy's proposal may not be a bad thing. The Georgetown Waterfront Park, just a few blocks from heating plant, was completed just five years ago and both Rock Creek Park and the C&O canal run along the site.

To offset the loss of the park, and curry neighborhood support for a higher and denser project, the boiler room of the new West Heating Plant art space could be part of a new public space with new entrances connecting it to both Rock Creek and the canal. Shops facing the canal could be added along the ground floor making it a popular neighborhood destination.

Compromises will undoubtedly be necessary to get the developer to support preserving the plant and the neighborhood to support more density on the site. But it would be well worth it.

A West Heating Plant site with both an extension of the urban fabric plus new public arts and green space at the intersection of two of DC's most popular parks might be a altogether a better deal for Georgetown and the District.

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