Opiate of the Massing

Up until recently, the NE corner of the intersection of 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. , in the “West End” neighbourhood of Washington, D.C., was dominated by a dilapidated Italianate/Romanesque Revival apartment building. In 2006 however, construction began on a new space for the old site, incorporating the facade of the existing structure, and then building a new structure around it. The resulting project, known as 2501 Pennsylvania Avenue, generally does a good job of not only bringing back the old building, but fitting the new structure harmoniously into the contextual fabric of the block. However, there are a few problems with the structure that reflect a clumsiness in the handling of classical, indeed vernacular architecture.

This particular corner of D.C. is an interesting microcosm of urban renewal in the Nation’s capital, and is a new success story that continues to evolve. The West End is what used to be the west end of Washington D.C. proper. It is located in a few square blocks west of Washington Circle, just before leaving the city for the 18th-century village of Georgetown, which due to its history and geography managed to remain independent from the city until its charter was revoked by Congress in 1871.

The West End has been dominated by the old Columbia Hospital for Women and by the church of St. Stephen Martyr (my parish) for well over a century. Both of these structures have changed significantly, in that the old hospital is now a substantially expanded condominium complex, and the present church of St. Stephen was completed in 1960, replacing an earlier structure that had stood on the site since the Victorian era (which itself replaced an even earlier structure). The Columbia and St. Stephen’s sit roughly across the street from each other, their respective towers contrasting strongly – the former with a pair of Italianate, tile-roofed mini-campanile, and the other a modernist design putting one in mind of Orthanc in “The Lord of the Rings”. The new project, located across from The Columbia and St. Stephen’s, will have to compete with both structures for the visitor’s attention.

Certainly there is much to be said for the new massing that flanks the central, restored portion of the site – which seems to cry out for a chamfered corner like in Barcelona to show it off to the best effect. Facing the central structure, a white stone block facade, all quoins, good rustication, and beaux-arts ballustrades, looks over Pennsylvania Avenue to the left. On the right, a traditional red brick Victorian facade looks directly across at the buff-coloured brick of The Columbia’s new west wing. The three disparate styles, when seen together, create a unified whole that one would expect of an urban neighbourhood built up over time. However, problems arise when one starts to pay particular attention to the sense of scale in the fenestration, and how the generally pleasing massing of the two new facades is somewhat diminished by clumsy symmetry and the use of inappropriate design – mistakes which would never have been made by a 19th century architect trained in the proper grammar of the medium.

The Pennsylvania Avenue facade is the better of the two in this regard. It rings much more true to the beaux-arts style it emulates, even though the penthouse windows are squashed and too lacking in detail to seriously evoke the often grand rooflines, projecting attic windows, and overhangs of a true beaux-arts building. Particularly disappointing is the central pediment window, which looks almost like an afterthought: it seems tucked in and manipulated into place using a photoshopped design element, not crowning the structure as it ought to do.

However, the errors on the 25th Street side are, on closer inspection, more egregious. This facade echoes an high-rise Italianate red brick American city apartment building of five stories or more, with bow windows and dating from about 1890. However, such a building would almost always have sash windows, never casement windows. Safety alone would have prevented an architect in his day from using casement windows at such a height because of the danger that a small child could easily unlatch, push the casements open, and fall out. Casement windows in 19th century urban dwellings tend to be found in single family houses, or in apartments of only two or three stories in height.

Moreover, these casement windows have, bizarrely and incongruously, been provided with an applied cross mullion, that one would find on traditional sash windows where the two panes of glass meet and can be locked together. Here, the mullion is a pastiche and serves no function on a casement window. Presumably the architect adopted this style in order to satisfy a local planning board, but the end result is that it raises a false note. The careful observer soon begins to cast a critical eye over the entire street front, noticing the odd placement of the windows in the far left and right portions of the facade, and the rather dissatisfying fenestration scheme of the center that seems fine at first, but which, on closer inspection, is devoid of a proper sense of scale, let alone basic harmony or interest.

Finally, the cupola that is being reconstructed on top of the old building, while not unattractive in its way, is not, so far as I can tell, a faithful reconstruction of the old. It is too simplified, lacking in the detail and texture of the old building, and from the projections almost looks like something made out of a very advanced form of Lego. The Romanesque windows, the incised and decorated brackets, the two-story columns that create a sense of both verticality and solidity on the facade, all deserve a cupola that compliments and respects the beauty and solid dignity of its neighbors. While the end result will no doubt be attractive, it does seem to be a bit lacking in the gravitas of the remaining shell of the old building.

Ultimately of course, the success or failure of any building is in how that building “learns” its role over time. If it becomes a beloved point of interest on the urban horizon, to those coming and going from Georgetown into the city, then so much the better. However, the errors in understanding the basic concepts of architectural grace and balance that were so familiar to most urban developers, builders, and architects as recently as the 1930’s, seem to have been lost to such a great extent that this is the best our contemporary society can do to evoke the past. One applauds the efforts to preserve, but to build in this context deserved a bit more careful research and sensitivity to not only the basics of good design, but also to the historical context of urban American residential architecture.

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