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Tear It Down! Save It!
Comments () | Published March 1, 2009

It says something about the transformation of Washington’s economy that a building on McPherson Square built as headquarters of the Southern Railway is now filled with law firms and the Soap and Detergent Association. An old printing plant in Eckington where National Geographic was once produced now contains studios of Sirius XM Radio, and a former Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company warehouse on North Capitol Street is being converted to the headquarters of National Public Radio. A lumber warehouse in Shaw, built in 1906, is now used by Bread for the City, which provides food, clothing, and medical care for the poor.

The city’s boom in museums owes much to their natural fit with historic buildings looking for a new life. The National Building Museum found a home in the Pension Building, built in the 1880s to serve the needs of Civil War veterans, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts is located in a Masonic temple built in 1908. Locally, the Smithsonian has four off-the-Mall museums in historic buildings—the Renwick, which had been used most recently as a court building; the National Postal Museum, housed in an old post office next to Union Station; and the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, which share the onetime Patent Office that was begun in 1836. The International Spy Museum occupies buildings that were constructed in the 1870s and sat empty for decades, and a new Armenian holocaust museum will be occupying an elegant old bank building on 14th Street.

Declining enrollment has forced the closing of historic DC public schools, several of which are now occupied by charter schools. The Benjamin Franklin School, built just after the Civil War, was used for several years as a homeless shelter, a function that will soon be assumed by the Joseph Gales School near Union Station.

A number of private schools use historic properties, including a mansion built in 1801 occupied by Maret and one built in 1827 used by Sidwell Friends. The Field School has adapted an art moderne home built on Foxhall Road by developer Morris Cafritz and wife Gwendolyn in 1937, and the Levine School of Music occupies a building in Forest Hills that once housed a geophysical laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The popularity of downtown living has led to the conversion of historic buildings to condominiums or rental apartments. Several old schools and office buildings have made this transition along with a couple of steam laundries and a church. The Columbia Hospital for Women, which was built in 1915 and witnessed 270,000 births before it closed in 2002, has been transformed into condos priced at more than $1 million. Half a dozen historic neighborhood movie theaters have been converted to retail stores, especially drugstores.

An old post office near the Verizon Center has been reborn as the Hotel Monaco, and a nearby Riggs bank is now a Courtyard by Marriott. Several old mansions have become venues for weddings and large parties, including both Evermay and Halcyon House in Georgetown and Woodend, a 40-acre Chevy Chase estate with a mansion that’s headquarters to the Audubon Naturalist Society. The Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, and the Mellon Auditorium in Federal Triangle are two of the city’s grandest party spaces. The Atlas movie house on H Street, Northeast, built in 1938 in art moderne style, has become a neighborhood performing-arts center surrounded by lively bars. And a McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant occupies a Masonic temple on F Street built in 1870.

Another transformation is proposed for the Uline Arena (a.k.a. Washington Coliseum), north of Union Station, which was declared a historic landmark in 2006. Built in 1941 by a company that owned a nearby ice plant, it became a venue for ice hockey, skating, pro basketball, boxing, wrestling, swing dances, the first US performance of the Beatles, speeches by Malcolm X, and go-go music. The building, used for many years as a trash transfer station and now as a parking garage, is owned by developer Douglas Jemal, who plans to turn it into an office-retail complex.

The largest recycling of a historic property in Washington involves St. Elizabeths, the sprawling government complex for the treatment of the mentally ill that sits atop a hill on the east side of the Anacostia River. Established in the 1850s, the hospital’s west campus covers 176 acres, with a panorama of DC and Northern Virginia, and features bucolic grounds and more than 60 red-brick structures, about half of them built in the 19th century. Among its most famous patients was the poet Ezra Pound, who was found mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges of treason for his anti-Semitic propaganda during World War II on behalf of the Italian government of Benito Mussolini.

The old buildings of the west campus at St. Elizabeths have been empty since that portion of the hospital was shut down a decade ago—boarded up by the General Services Administration and awaiting a new use. The campus is likely to become the high-security headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, accommodating 14,000 workers in renovated historic buildings and several new buildings. Historic preservationists have objected, arguing that the new buildings will destroy too much open space and overwhelm the older buildings. They have won some concessions to make the project more sensitive to the historic setting, but a DHS takeover has been moving toward approval. It’s possible that someday the secretary of the nation’s antiterrorism agency will occupy an office in the same building that once held Ezra Pound.

Icons or Monstrosities?

Capitol Park was completed in 1959—a complex of high-rise apartments and townhouses that was the first project in the Southwest urban-renewal area. It was designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, Washington’s first prominent female architect, with noted landscape architect Dan Kiley responsible for the surrounding open space that included a patio, pavilion, reflecting pool, and mural. By 2003 the complex was owned by Monument Realty, which decided to get rid of Kiley’s creation and fill the space with more apartments. When the DC Preservation League and Committee of 100 realized what was happening, they successfully got the Historic Preservation Office to declare the complex a historic landmark, but not before the patio, pavilion, and reflecting pool were demolished.

The situation was tinged with irony. Here was a modernist building being protected by preservationists that just 45 years earlier had required the demolition of a block of historic houses and stores. Monument Realty began negotiations on a compromise. The result: Monument was allowed to build its apartments; in exchange it agreed to preserve and move the outdoor mural and created a $450,000 mitigation fund to be used for preservation efforts citywide.

The Capitol Park controversy served as a wake-up call for preservationists on the question of saving mid-20th-century buildings. Part of the $450,000 was spent on a well-attended symposium in 2006 discussing buildings of the “recent past.” It was sponsored by a new program of the DC Preservation League called DC Modern, which is headed by Joan Brieton, a former Preservation League trustee. Other money is being used for a study—concerning the historical context of modern architecture in the city from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s—being conducted by Robinson & Associates, a DC preservation consulting firm.

Preservationists consider this an opportune moment to address the modern-architecture issue. There’s a rough rule of thumb that buildings should be at least 50 years old before being considered for historic designation—enough time for some historical perspective—and many of DC’s modern buildings are approaching this age. Just a few already have been landmarked—Arena Stage, the Watergate, HUD, the US Tax Court, the Martin Luther King library, the Washington Hilton, and the Christian Science church.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles