Boxing Mismatch: This Building Is No Knockout

Over on The Georgetown Metropolitan, Topher Matthews reports on a forthcoming building project by DC developers EastBanc which, frankly, ought to be titled “A Nightmare on M Street”:

Although making use of this tiny parcel of land for a “statement” building may seem strange to outsiders, for many Georgetowners this is *the* key route in and out of the city of Washington, which Georgetown itself predates. As such, it sets the tone for those arriving in the neighborhood. A run-down gas station, even a mock Colonial one such as the one currently occupying this gateway site, does no one any favors, visually speaking.

Of course, while the choice of a Brutalist 2.0 building to fill this prominent spot in the village is truly a terrible one, it isn’t as if the intersection plays host to any significant or even particularly attractive works of architecture. For all its stars and accolades from the rich and famous, the Four Seasons Hotel on 28th and Pennsylvania is a bland building, which would look more at home on the campus of a small technical college.

The other structures surrounding the parcel where this new condo will rise are mostly average-to-bad. The building currently housing the Tari Salon is a dated, immature thing, an attempt to Robert Venturi-size the concept of the mansard roof and the turret. The Mongolian Embassy on the corner of M and 29th is an architectural  disaster, mixing ersatz American Colonial with references to the vaguely Neoclassical Revival former movie theatre next door (now a CVS), in a decidedly unfriendly way.  Those gated and unused mini-courtyards alone make one shudder.

On the plus side, the commercial building on the corner of 28th and M is rather handsome, with its dormered windows, solid stance, and wide veranda.  Stylistically, it belongs somewhere else – say New Orleans or Natchez – and as a practical feature the veranda fails, since it faces due South, baking all day long in the scorching heat, and you will never spot anyone sitting out on it. The rowhouses containing Das restaurant on the north side of the confluence of streets, and those housing a selection of small specialty shops and cafes on the other, are perfectly fine, even if there is nothing particularly special about them, architecturally speaking.

The problem with this newest addition to the village fabric is not just its ugliness, but that it has nothing to do with the mostly modest scale of the surrounding buildings. Part of the charm of Georgetown is that, with a few exceptions, most of the neighborhood’s architecture really isn’t of any particular architectural significance or grandeur. For every Tudor Place or Healy Hall, there are 50 standard brick row houses that could be found in just about any East Coast city.

Rather what is significant about the neighborhood is the whole: the “conjunto” as one would say in Spanish. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Georgetown’s architecture is a mixture of styles, materials, and methods, all (generally) peacefully coexisting alongside each other.  Strolling through the village is like taking a walking tour of the course of American design over four centuries.

In choosing to position a structure better-suited to Ballston on such a prominent parcel, what is EastBanc saying about the perception visitors and residents are meant to have about the neighborhood? An unremarkable and unattractive apartment building which looks like it could just as easily stand in suburban Lima or Lahore does not say much to me as a local. What does it say to those tourists, shoppers, and diners on whose spending the entire neighborhood depends?

Perhaps it’s unfair to put such a burden on the shoulders of a condo building.  However after the success of its High Street condo along the C&O Canal, a highly successful design completed just a few months ago, it does seem that EastBanc has dropped the ball on this one. This will prove to be a major lost opportunity for the neighborhood. Tearing down a crumbling, if inoffensive, commercial building and replacing it with a building of no charm or distinction whatsoever, in the most beautiful neighborhood in the city, seems a significant blow to the village in particular, and to DC as a whole.


College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)


The Flickering Memories of Dining Out

I’ve been thinking about old restaurants a lot.  Not necessarily the fancy, Michelin-starred sort of places, necessarily, but places which have hung on for a long time.  When you stand back and look at it rationally, it’s a bit weird that we put more of an emotional investment into the occasional spending outlay of eating out, than we do into things we purchase all the time, like soap or paper towels.  So why is that?

We’ve been having a really hard time of it lately in Georgetown, the neighborhood in Washington, DC where I happen to hang my cape.  One after the other, a number of long-established local dining institutions have been shutting down, to be replaced either by new restaurants or by retail space.  Au Pied du Cochon, The Guards, and Cafe La Ruche, among others, have become historical footnotes in the history of the village.  Now we can add Chadwick’s to that list.

Businesses don’t last forever, not even favorite old haunts, and particularly not in the restaurant world.  True, some places have remarkable powers of survival.  Lhardy in Madrid for example, has been serving outstanding food near the Puerta del Sol since 1839; Scott’s in London has existed in one form or another since the 17th century, albeit not in its present location, when it began life as a tavern serving oysters brought down by coach from Scotland.

In some cases the place stays the same, but the identity changes.  Georgetown’s City Tavern Club, for example, occupies what started out as The Indian King tavern and coaching inn back in 1796, and has gone through numerous owners and name changes since then.  Other dining spots manage to hold on to both location and ownership, such as Billy Martin’s Tavern, which opened in Georgetown in 1933 and is still owned and operated by the Martin family today.  If Martin’s ever went bust, I think I would go into mourning.

Lest you think that such things only concern what we might call everyday people, the high and mighty have their own attachments to favorite dining establishments.  For example, in the British press this morning there were reports of Prince Charles having personally written a letter to Antonio Carluccio, when the chef had to close down his popular Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden.  The place where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got his start had to shutter, due to ill health stemming from the chef’s exhaustion.  That is the nature of the beast of course, when the chef both defines the place and runs the business, as it can spell the inevitable end of a great dining establishment over time.

When we lose a favorite dining spot, particularly one that we have known for awhile, it’s a bit like losing a member of the family.  We may even feel guilty about not visiting them more often, as if we owed a for-profit business some measure of sworn fealty or filial devotion.  After all, this is just commerce, and an ephemeral sort of commerce at that: we eat the food, and it is gone.

Except what really distinguishes a favorite restaurant is not the food, but the memories we make there.  A dining spot where we celebrated a significant event, for example, like a birthday or anniversary or first date, can burn bright in our memories long after we’ve forgotten what we ate.  And even when we do remember the menu, more likely than not it’s not just the food, but the company who shared that food with us, that causes us to look back fondly at the place.

Restaurants will continue to come and go as tastes change, market forces expand and contract, and chefs retire or move on to other things.  So while not turning into some sort of guilt complex, it’s important to periodically visit your favorite spots to help keep them going.  More importantly however, you want to make return visits to places you like to eat, in order to keep your old memories fresh, and continue to make new ones.  For the day will almost inevitably come when you can no longer sit down to dinner at a place like The Guards, in front of a roaring fire, eating the best cheeseburger in the village with a group of good friends in lively discussion.  And that will be quite a sorry day, when it comes.

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009

Fireplace at The Guards, Georgetown, circa 2009