Today is Flag Day, when Americans mark Congress’ adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States, on this date in 1777. Sadly, Flag Day does not seem to be as widely marked as it once was, though I have done my part in sporting red, white, and blue this morning. While it is still a common practice among those who care about such things to fly the flag today, the reader’s attention is drawn to an amusing bit of architectural reference to Old Glory here in the District, which may have escaped the notice even of those who pass it regularly.
The mixed-use building located at 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW here in Washington is a large structure that many locals and tourists who make their way to the West End will recognize. In addition to offices and apartments, it houses several businesses at street level, including the upscale Marcel’s restaurant (where, to quote Margo Channing, “the elite meet”), and the below-the-scale McFadden’s den of filth, where one is likely to enjoy an evening of body shots with cast members of “Jersey Shore”. Such is democracy.
Those paying attention when they approach the building will see that there are brackets which run around the lower part of the facade. Each is an alternating silhouette in metal of the head of either an elephant or a donkey, representing of course the symbols of the Republican and Democratic Parties, respectively. This is a clever, if admittedly somewhat kitschy, design element.
However what many may not notice, even if they spot the political animals closer to street level, is that at the corners of the building, where the facade “splits” to reveal a stack of glass-enclosed, bow-fronted spaces, are gigantic concrete and brick flag poles with the American flag on top. The flags are cast to look as though they are fluttering in the breeze, and they appear just above a broad frieze of stripes punctuated by stars that runs below the cornice of the building. Clearly those who commissioned this building were not only avidly patriotic, but also wanted to have some fun.
The building was designed by the DC office of Keyes Condon Florance, an architectural firm which has since merged with other firms and gone out of existence. What little I have seen of their work ranges from the perfectly adequate renovation, such as the old masonic temple converted into the National Museum of Women in the Arts, to the sort of ho-hum, such as the Catholic University Law School building. Perhaps one of their more interesting projects was the redevelopment of the gorgeous old Greyhound Bus Terminal at 1100 New York Avenue NW, one of the only art deco buildings in D.C.
In the case of this particular building in the West End, while the decorative elements may bring to mind the cutesy work of Michael Graves at the Eisner Building in Burbank, the truth is that I don’t hate it. Sometimes the boulevardier, such as yours truly, likes to come across unexpected architectural details which may not technically be in good taste, but are undeniably amusing. For all my love of great Old Master paintings, for example, I also enjoy comic book illustrations. And even if I love Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I also enjoy a bottle of cheap plonk from the grocer’s. Once you have a fundamental understanding of standards, it is okay to simply relax and have fun from time to time, and that includes appreciating architecture such as this.
While we have gorgeous weather today here in DC for waving the flag, this unusual building proudly waves the flag every hour of every day of every year for all to see, if one will but look up and take notice. It will not tatter, fade, or fray, as conventional flags made of even the most resilient fabric inevitably do. This is quite a testament to the love of the American flag of both the architects and the builders of the project, even if they are representing that love in an unconventional way. And of course, that individualism and quirkiness is part of the spirit that formed this country and created our flag. Long may both continue.
Corner of 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, taken this morning