Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Local Architect Disrespects the National Register Recognition of Blagden Alley.

The Convention Center Community Association recently published details of the proposal for 926 N Street that will sit on the North gateway to Blagden Alley and significantly extend into it. Seriously - is this really an appropriate portal to such a historic collection of places? 

This proposed development will abut against the massive stable in the middle of the block. Blagden Alley and its sister alley – Naylor Court – are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as an acknowledgement of their value as a collection of properties. These alleys reflect a remarkable time in the history of Washington D.C. These alleys provided buildings for stables, homes for workers, shops for small businesses and a place for a rich human engagement. The value of these two alleys is in the collective impact of the properties and the stories they tell rather than any one specific building.
The National Register when considering the significance of a place asks the following questions: - “Is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history, or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?”

Several years ago Sally Berk, who is a past president of the DC Preservation League, elegantly presented her lifetime career lessons in historic preservation within Washington D.C. Her talk which was given before the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians was called “A Tour of My Losses: A Quarter Century of Preservation in Washington” which was reported in this blog on September 28th 2008

These are 6 concepts that she shared.

1. Preservation is good business.
Preservation building work constitutes 50% of the building efforts in Washington D.C. and accounts for a financial contribution that is equal to that of new construction ($9.5 billion dollars for preservation and $9.5 billion dollars for new construction).

2. Preservation is about managing change and not about preventing it.
Change is inevitable. It is wiser to learn how to manage change and have an active and guiding hand in that process than to attempt to thwart it and lose the opportunity for melding preservation and change.

3. Preservation is about continuing the historic context.
The background of an area in terms of its legacy (such as music, the arts, and commercial buildings) lends a hand in contextual historic architectural preservation of that area.

4. Preservation is about respecting the historic context.
The juxtaposition of new construction that does not respect the historic context of the building or the area diminishes the historic legacy of the properties.

5. Preservation is not about copying history.
Some areas of the city that are generally thought of as “historic” have sanctioned new construction that mimics 19th Century architecture, thereby becoming a caricature of their past. Historic replication is not a substitute for historic preservation.

6. One should be able to read the layers of the city.
As one walks through any city, one should be able to read the layers of the past, as each new era’s unique style of architecture is graciously interdigitated with that of the past. Each layer should be recognizable and appreciated for its era’s contribution to the overall gestalt of the building or collection of structures.

New architecture that detracts from the “continuing the historic context” – Sally Berk’s point #3 – disrespects the value of the block. Similarly structures like the one proposed for 926 N Street NW disrespect the “continuing historic context” – point #4.

It takes intelligence, reflection, and a sense of sociology, history and substantial thoughtfulness to be a great architect – someone who can artfully blend the new with the old. Simplistically dropping a 3-D Piet Mondrian imitation box into a nationally recognized historic block is an anti-intellectual affront. Perhaps in another context this building might “fly” but this was an ill-advised site to choose. 

As Ada Louise Huxtable, the wonderfully tart tongued architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, once said: - “An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t so awful.” 

Community responses to this and other area projects by this architect have not been kind. The following are comments that have been posted in the Renew Shaw blog and elsewhere.

Comment #1 Awful. This non-contextual building is supposedly going to be three levels high. In these drawings one can clearly see how it towers over the neighboring historic houses, which are three stories high themselves. Counting the floors, an observer can tell that the building clearly has four to five levels, if the top units are double height. 
One can tell that the historic context of the neighborhood has not been taken into account –not even by accident- during the design process of these buildings. It looks very similar to the new “essay in primary colors” building in the 600 block of M Street NW, which could be potentially known as the second ugliest building in the neighborhood if this design is ever approved. 
Fortunately, this side of the neighborhood is considered a historic site, so this monstrosity has very little chances of being built on that spot, but one never knows!”

Comment #2. “Susan Reatig is a disgusting person who has done nothing but trash our neighborhood with the junk she puts up. Her last "trash of the neighborhood" is at 7th and M NW. In the Mt. Vernon Square Historical District she has torn down an old house that had sat on the north side of the street for over a hundred years with the dreadful trash that's almost finished. Of course with United House of Prayer (McCullough Constructon's help). Those wonderful, neighborhood conscience Christians. She trashed the end of Ridge Street at the 4th Street end on the north side of the street. She trashed N Street towards the 5th Street side in Mt. Square also. She trashed the corner of 5th and O with the junk as well. Now she's heading north to 625 Rhode Island. All of this trashing has been done with the help of United House of Prayer for All People, (7th and M NW and 7th and R NW). This is the same church that ruins the neighborhood every Memorial Day and has NEVER done one thing for the kids in the neighborhood in the 30 years I've lived here. Someone needs to stop this woman from trashing our neighborhood yet again.”

Comment #3. “I detest her designs. The one at 5th and O St. looks like a bad medical office building from the 80's.”
Comment #4 “It is simply horrendous and monstrous.”

Comment #5. “Sorry to be vulgar but this proposal is uglier than ugly, it is F_ _LY. It needs to be opposed if it hasn’t been already.”

In public recognition of the rich legacy of the alleys in Washington, the Historic Preservation Office recently launched a survey of the city’s historic alleys.

“Initial survey efforts have been focused on historic rowhouse neighborhoods, which feature the largest number of alley dwellings, carriage houses, stables, warehouses, and garages. Survey work is already underway in the alleys in Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, Shaw, LeDroit Park, Mount Vernon Square, Mount Vernon Triangle, Greater Fourteenth Street, and U Street. HPO has collected data on over 500 alley buildings so far, with plans to continue the survey work already in progress and to expand its survey to other historic districts during 2012.” (from the HPO website) 

The proposal at 926 N Street NW is wrong minded and entirely inappropriate for this location. While the HPO is working on the one hand to protect the historic nature of the city’s alleys, on the other hand it is simultaneously working to green light this specific project to mutilate this historic alley entranceway. The architect has been sent back to the drawing board by HPO for modifications. Interestingly this is not the first project like this that has been rejected in the neighborhood because it did not respect the historic context. In many minds the 926 N monstrosity proposed should be scrapped entirely without modifications if HPO has the integrity to uphold its responsibility to wisely integrate preservation and progress. 

Seriously - what doesn't fit here: - A,B or C?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a result of the ANC meeting (and community pressure) this firm has agreed to meet with the Blagden Alley-Naylor Court Association and various other stakeholders to properly present their proposal. They have also postponed the date of the HPRB presentation until after discussions within the community. Their client (The United House of Prayer) also needs to be much more engaged in this process since this is their initiative that is being forced into the neighborhood and they should be a responsible part of the community. What remains to be seen is whether this architectural firm has the ability to (a) work constructively with the community and (b) create something better. At this point all bets are off.