Tuesday, April 24, 2012

" ... more right than his neighbors ..."

"Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." 

Henry David Thoreau spoke these oft quoted words in a Concord Lyceum lecture on January 6th 1848.  This address was published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government" and again in 1866 when the term "Civil Disobedience" (a term Thoreau may never have used) first surfaced. 

But how do you know you're right?

Ayn Rand had assertive thoughts about this question and in some senses extended elements of Thoreau's thesis. 

"The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me."  Ayn Rand

 "There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil."  Ayn Rand

So it is with art and architecture both of which are interpreted and expressed subjectively and both of which swim in pools of rules. What's "right" in architecture is perhaps never as much an absolute as many would have one believe. Perhaps questions such as "What fits? What makes sense? What respects the past and opens gates to the future? What makes people feel welcomed? What's really new and exciting?" might be more appropriate than "what's/who's right."

The architect Howard Roark's (Gary Cooper) stirring speech in the Movie Fountainhead wraps itself around the conflict between public opinion and personal integrity and creative expression. It's worth revisiting for inspiration about standing up for what is "right."
Yet if everyone feels that they are more right than their neighbors and that they already constitute a majority of one, then what happens to progress and civil discourse and a collective evolution of concepts which assimilates material from the best of minds and ideas to create something new?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Alley Survey and Changing the Profile of Alley Living in DC

The recently announced HPO DC alley survey is documenting scores of alley structures that have contributed to the history of the city's development. Many are stables, others are warehouses or former shops. This survey project is a huge step forward in preserving DC stables and many other salvageable structures. Kimberly Williams who is in charge of the survey was recently quoted in Urban Turf as saying: "We are finding stables, carriage houses, artist studios, industrial buildings and private and commercial garages. We see a lot of old advertising on the walls that you don't find on main city streets anymore." Discussions about alleys have recently become hot topics in urban planning in a number of cities. One gets the sense that many in this city have become tired of the glacial glass and steel cubes of K Street and are longing for something entirely different architecturally. 
  In the course of preserving DC stables and other architectural oddities in DC alleys, one is struck by the realization that the act of preserving these buildings ultimately preserves, renews and restores the alley itself. 
   For many reasons, foremost of which are crime, garbage storage and service access, alleys have been literally and figuratively out of sight and mind of most urban planners. Consequently over the last 70 years, laws and codes were created that actually made it very difficult to live in DC alleys even when properties were available. New construction in these alleys was verboten - especially in the narrow sections. The new codes for the city will breathe new life into the languishing alleys of the city.

   Personal time has become very precious to people. The costs of increasingly tedious commutes in terms of personal time and automobile running costs have become too high a price for many to pay. Over the past 4 years people have been moving back into D.C. by the thousands, looking for a better quality of life that includes more personal time in which to enjoy the spectrum of D.C. living. With a fixed 12 mile radius and a height restriction increased density of living comes through (a) the development of dead and decaying blocks and squares (b) renovation and restoration of boarded up structures that are still structurally sound and (c) exploration of alley living options.
   A small number of cities in the US are already well on the way to rescuing and constructively harnessing their alleys. Much of this effort is taking place one alley and one individual at a time. A really touching story of a young girl (Madeleine) who is on a crusade to beautify the alley where she lives with her parents is in this blog
   Once something is named it instantly becomes humanized. There is a sense of anthropomorphism. For example, once a feral cat has a name, there is an inclination to feed it and generally care for it that may not have existed when it was just another alley cat. 
   D.C. alleys have fabulous names that should be made highly visible so that passers by begin to feel a little kinder about them and respect them and their legacy a little more. One community in Madison is already doing this.

DC Streets were boringly named alphabetically (A Street) and numerically (1st Street) and by quadrant (NW) and by State (Massachusetts) whereas the alley names reflected real life and day-to-day living. They recalled the names of real people who contributed to the neighborhood. Some were simply colorful and needed no explanation at all such as "Goat Alley" and "Blood Alley" and "Blues Alley." Alleys are the arterioles of a city and need to flow with pedestrian traffic, bicycles and renewed pulsations of life.

A. H. Beers' Apartment Building

This gracious reader's comment has prompted a formal response.

"Dear Preserving DC Stables Blogger: We just returned from a lovely 9 day stay in the Blagden Court area. It was great to see firsthand the stables, alleys, preservation efforts, etc. We stayed at the four story apartment building, 1305 10th St NW. Do you have any info on the building? We were curious...was this built after the stable period was at its height? Is it a 1920s structure? What a wonderful neighborhood you have. It is certainly worth preserving. It was very meaningful for us to read the many posts, and view the excellent images, on your blog prior to our visit. Sincerely, Kevin Minneapolis, MN"

The Atlantic apartment building at 1305 10th Street NW was constructed on March 15th 1911- permit number 3991. The architect was A.H. Beers who was well known in Washington and prolific, with 609 permits and 2,433 buildings between 1899 and 1912. Seventy-eight buildings were apartment buildings. The Atlantic (120 feet by 49 feet and 4 stories high) was one of his last buildings, erected at a cost of $35,000 and designed for 24 families of the working and middle class. 

Another example of Beers' architecture was profiled in the  blog "Then and Now" which described "The Toronto" in Dupont Circle. An apartment building adjacent to The Atlantic is The Henrietta, built a decade earlier at the turn of the century. The elegance of the architectural details is remarkable. 

The Henrietta 
The scale and configuration of these buildings are providing reference points and "texture" today for several 21st Century apartment buildings on same block of N Street that are in various planning stages. Further details are discussed in an earlier post
Construction of stables in Washington ceased around 1910, for the need was rapidly diminishing. There were very few cars in DC at the time these two apartments were constructed so parking was never considered an essential part of the original plans. 

The author greatly appreciates the kind comments of our Minneapolis visitor and reader. Thank you.

This is an example of why Historic Preservation is necessary

Look carefully at the middle building in this previously identical row
of 5 buildings on 8th Street NW