Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the address of the facade next to Connecticut Avenue near Kalorama Street NW as well as the site of a future Chinese Embassy residential project. The facade is located at 2310 Connecticut Ave. NW. and the residential project will be located at 2300 Connecticut Ave. NW. This version has been corrected.
I drive by the wall that is kept standing next to Connecticut Avenue near Kalorama Street NW as the last remnant of the former Chinese Embassy. Why is it being kept there?
— Susan Willens,
Answer Man thought he would be able to resist calling this curious structure the Great Wall of China, but it turned out he was wrong.
The wall — the facade, really — is all that remains of 2310 Connecticut Ave. NW. When it opened in 1922, it was a seven-story apartment building called the St. Albans. It was designed by the architectural firm of Stern & Tomlinson.
In the six years they worked together, David L. Stern and Frank Tomlinson designed 63 apartment buildings in Washington. That was during Washington’s great apartment-building boom, as developers competed to create ever-more-attractive and luxurious rental properties.
That particular neighborhood has several distinctive apartment buildings, including the Woodward, the Carthage and the Dresden, all of which are within a block of what once was the St. Albans.
Just south of 2310 was 2300 Connecticut Ave. NW, an eight-story structure completed in 1946. It was known as the Windsor Park and housed both apartments and a hotel. Frankly, it was a rather undistinguished building, but Answer Man enjoyed learning that its builder, Louis A. Montague, was a Frenchman who had shot down a German triplane while serving in World War I.
Are today’s D.C. developers as interesting?
That and other facts are contained in a study that the architectural history firm EHT Traceries did on the two buildings before they were (largely) torn down. The client: the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China.
In 1973, the communist nation purchased both 2300 and 2310 Connecticut Ave. The complex — joined by interior corridors — served as China’s chancery. It became a full-fledged embassy in 1979, when the United States and China instituted full diplomatic ties.
In 2008, the Chinese built a new embassy on Van Ness Street NW. The plan is to construct new residences on the old embassy site. It will be a 130-unit apartment building for Chinese Embassy workers.
Why does a grid of girders embrace a single wall from a 1922 apartment building? Because that brick and limestone facade will be incorporated into the new structure.
This is not uncommon in Washington. The result is sometimes called a “facadomy.” Esocoff & Associates’ Phil Esocoff, the architect who designed the Chinese residence building, doesn’t like that word. He thinks that, like “lobotomy,” it implies that something is being taken away.
Rather, the facade is being retained because it helps tell the story of the neighborhood. The building is within the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District. The period of significance for the district is 1890 to 1939, when it grew to include embassies, grand residences and apartment buildings. The Windsor Park Hotel came after that period and was completely demolished. The St. Albans was what’s known as a “contributing resource.” Its facade was retained.
Designing an apartment building for foreign residents entailed some unique considerations. “Chinese like to have through ventilation, from front to back,” Phil said. He put that in. And while the use of traditional woks has decreased in China, the embassy still requested that kitchen walls be tiled and each unit have a robust exhaust fan. The building will also include a 25-meter lap pool, a half-court basketball court and a roof garden.
Not a lot of work was going on at the site when Answer Man visited recently. Two men were digging a hole. Two men were watching them dig a hole. A fifth man was moving a stack of bricks with a forklift. Construction likely will not start until January and will take 26 months. It is not a simple thing to finalize contracts for a building involving both U.S. and Chinese contractors. (No doubt the Chinese will be on the lookout for listening devices.)
Phil said he understands the stakes of the building he designed. It’s in a prime location, showcased at the end of Taft Bridge and accentuated by a little crook in Connecticut Avenue.
“I hope it will live up to the expectations of the architects who preceded me,” Phil said. “I don’t want them looking down and saying, ‘Who is this kid?’ ”