Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Buildings are always 4-square

When I was a little boy one of my many tasks, in addition to cutting lawns and washing cars, was to shine father’s shoes at night for the morning. Father was a busy, hard driven man with a powerful career. I somehow naively felt honored as a little kid. Perhaps I rationalized the honor of this chore by speculating that father just didn’t know how to do this – especially with my electric buffer! One day he said to me (always in testing mode) “Which part of the shoe do you think is the most important and why?” I said “The toe because that’s what people see first.” He seemed pleased with the answer – but no tip.

Why do I relate this tangential personal vignette? It’s because people tend to look at buildings in the same way. It’s the front that seems to count the most. Everything else is secondary. But buildings are always 4-square. They have many faces and many lives.

As alleys are being “rediscovered” and gaining respect throughout America, the rear and sides of buildings are beginning to take on ever-greater significance. So too are the alley buildings themselves. It was once said that the mark of a well-designed car is that it looks integrated and beautiful from every angle. So it is with buildings. 

The stable at the corner of Q and 3rd (1600 Rear) was built in 1900 as a private stable (19’ x 31’) by the acclaimed D.C. architect Julius Germuiller to accompany the Victorian home in the front of the property what had been built 5 years earlier. This stable has features that are highly unusual for a D.C. stable.
  • The quality of the design and construction is sophisticated as seen by the corbels and cornices
  • The hayloft door is on the side of the building rather than the front (rather than above the carriage entrance) because there is access from the alley
  • The stable is positioned at 90 degrees to the home (not in tandem)
  • The stable is “freestanding” with all sides of the stable clearly visible
  • The stable is at the entrance to the alley
  • The stable faces the street as part of the streetscape rather than the interior of the block
  • There is liberal use of windows, some of which have likely been added over time. 

This stable on 11th Street is another example of a rare streetscape stable.

Restored ghost signage with new 9th Street advertising added, draws people into the alley

Ghost signage with many layers in a Charlottesville "mews" 

Previously a garage, an auto body shop, a dog wash, an art warehouse, this alley building is now home to a popular sandwich shop that has been drawing people into an alley that would have until recently intimidated most pedestrians giving them a sense of foreboding.

Georgetown Bicycle Shop at an alley entrance

So what’s the point of this post?

(a) Buildings at the openings of alleys can act as magnets enticing people to explore the interior of the alley. In a way, they are like store windows giving glimpses of what lies within. One way to revitalize alleys in Washington is to start with a focus on their entrances 

(b) These charming, and for the most part well preserved, little buildings scattered throughout the city make terrific small homes (accessory dwelling units) and businesses for anyone who appreciates simplicity of living in a very vibrant and increasingly “hip” city. 

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