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”:

http://georgetownmetropolitan.com/2015/06/23/heres-what-eastbanc-wants-to-build-at-penn-and-m/

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.

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Making the Case for a New Georgetown Fountain

With news that EastBanc may be purchasing the site of the gas station across the street from the Four Seasons,  Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier finds himself in rather an important position, when it comes to the impression that both residents and visitors have of one of the Nation’s Capital.  For starters, EastBanc is already at work on plans to redevelop the site currently occupied by another gas station at the opposite end of M Street, the neighborhood’s main East-West thoroughfare, right across from the Key Bridge.  As travelers come into D.C. from the GW Parkway, it will be, along with the Car Barn and the spires of Georgetown University, one of the first impressions they get of the city.

This second project, at the other end of what Georgetown residents refer to as our “village”, is positioned on a parcel of land sandwiched between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where they cross over Rock Creek Parkway into the city proper.  EastBanc will be building directly across from arguably the most prestigious hotel in town, at least if you are one of the foreign heads of state or movie stars who regularly stay or dine there.  It’s a given in the life of the village that at least several times a week, a motorcade or flock of black SUV’s will be tying up traffic around the entrance to the Four Seasons for several minutes.  Even yesterday, coming home from church, the blare of police sirens clearing a path for a visiting V.I.P. swept up behind me on their way to the hotel.  The gas station however, has long been a curious eyesore, a leftover of what Georgetown looked like decades ago, when its commercial district had become somewhat seedy and run-down.

Mr. Lanier, himself a Georgetown resident, has done a great deal to provide both new and renovated, updated, retail and residential space in a nearly 300-year-old neighborhood where completely new construction is very rare, thanks to the entire 1-square mile area being listed as a historic district.  Although a few pockets of seedy Georgetown remain, largely concentrated within a 2-3 block stretch of the area’s primary North-South axis, Wisconsin Avenue, on the whole the commercial district is much improved in appearance.  Blocks where once there was nothing apart from warehouses or industrial buildings have been converted to modern hotels, apartments, and condominiums.  Because of the possibility of Mr. Lanier now redeveloping this prominent “gateway” site in Georgetown,  now seems as good an opportunity as any to bring up a project which would not only make this development look better, but bring a much-needed public space back into use for the area.

Directly abutting the land which EastBanc is looking to acquire is a somewhat desolate, hemispherical public plaza, occupied by some benches, a lot of brick pavers, and weeds.  In the past however, this spot used to feature a fountain which was considered one of the best in Washington, and DC has a lot of fountains. The piece was originally installed in the 1880’s, but was replaced with a smaller fountain decades later.  Both of these fountains are now long-gone, but the former, larger one still exists, sort of.  After leaving Georgetown, it went on to grace the now-vanished Truxton Circle, in a different part of the city.  Sadly, the fountain is now in pieces, crumbling away in Fort Washington National Park in Maryland.

Although the original fountain is apparently irretrievably damaged, I for one would like to renew my call for making this, one of the most important entries to Georgetown and indeed the Capital City, a more inviting place.  Would it be possible for EastBanc to bring back the fountain which used to stand here – or rather, a reproduction of it?  Or perhaps a more modern fountain would be possible?

The impression that so many visitors, both drivers and walkers, form of Georgetown when they enter from either end of M Street is hugely important.  The soaring spires of the university at one end cannot, of course, be replicated at the other.  However, given the comparatively lower elevation of the Rock Creek end of the neighborhood, and the proximity of the parcel in question to that body of water, it would only seem appropriate to bring back a public space with the kind of splashing, elegant water feature which previous residents and visitors enjoyed.  On a hot summer day when everyone, tourists and townies alike, is desperate for a place to rest in the shade and cool off, the return of a fountain-park would be a welcome addition to a place which, because of its 18th century village layout, has so relatively few open areas for people to congregate.  And of course, for EastBanc’s new development, if it happens, having an attractive place for residents of your new building to look at would make sense, as well.

So just a thought for you there, Mr. Lanier; now, the ball’s in your court.

Remnants of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

Fragments of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

 

>Some Lenten Friday Morsels

>Some items for you to chew on, gentle reader:

– Like the rest of the world I am following the news out of Japan and the Pacific Rim, and am hoping to have news from family and friends in Tokyo and elsewhere at some point telling us they are okay. Today would be a good time to ask for the intercession of Our Lady of Akita, whose shrine is about 100 miles from the epicenter of today’s earthquake. In 1988 then-Cardinal Ratzinger approved the apparitions at Akita.

– Have you bought your ticket to the Dominican House of Studies’ Spring Gala yet? It is coming up on March 26th, and I hope to see you there. After considering some of the very nice items up for silent auction, you may want to try some of the friars’ homemade brew.

– Congratulations to my esteemed friend Jonathan Montagu over at Nimbus Discovery, a biotech startup, which just announced that Bill Gates is going to provide their fledgling company with seed money. Makes all that shuttling back and forth from Soho to Cambridge the more worth it, doesn’t it, old bean?

– My deeply-held suspicions on Colonel Gadaffi’s use of botox were apparently confirmed by Wikileaks – admittedly not my favorite organization – earlier this year, a revelation which I missed at the time. I knew it. Apparently the dainty colonel also has his medical procedures videotaped and reviewed later by independent doctors, presumably so that if the treating doctor did something wrong he can have the fellow arrested, beaten, and have his wrists broken during a mock execution.

– Long-overdue repair and restoration work is underway on O and P Streets in Georgetown, which are still cobblestoned and have old trolley tracks in bad repair running down them. Toward the end of this article by Constance Chatfield-Taylor in The Georgetown Dish which gives an overview of some of the issues facing the project is the very interesting fact that there will be archaeologists on site in case anything noteworthy is discovered. As Georgetown approaches its 300th birthday, one wonders what they might find?

– I was intrigued to learn recently that in the comic book world, Superman had stopped wearing his familiar red, blue, and yellow suit in favor of a black and silver one. Given the views of this blog’s patron, Count Castiglione, on the virtues of wearing a palette such as black and silver over garish colors, I wondered whether the Man of Steel had been reading The Book of the Courtier recently. As I was reminded last evening in conversation with a friend who is a fellow sci-fi fan however, Marlon Brando (aka Superman’s father) wears black and silver on the Planet Krypton.

– On this day in 1513, Giovanni de Medici was proclaimed Pope, and took the name Leo X. Like most of the Renaissance popes, he was not a very saintly man; his most famous quote, allegedly said to his brother Giuliano, was: “God has given us the papacy – let us enjoy it.” Under his watch the Reformation ignited under Martin Luther, and we all know what happened subsequently. Being a Medici of course, Leo had superb taste, and commissioned beautiful art, including pushing forward the decoration of the famous Raphael Stanze that had begun under his predecessor Pope Julius II, and commissioning the legendary Raphael Tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel.

Cartoon for “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” Tapestry by Raphael (1515)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London