Historic homes in Washington embrace a wealth of significant architectural styles

September 7, 2012

History is practically everywhere you look in the Washington area. Pick just about any neighborhood, and you’ll see a plethora of historically significant architectural styles in the housing stock — from Queen Anne turrets and Beaux-Arts staircases to Arts and Crafts porches and Mid-Century Modern skylights.

Take a stroll through Georgetown and you’ll see Federal mansions, such as Evermay, and Cooke’s Row, an exa mple of the Italianate style most noted for its elaborate doorways, flat roofs and overhanging eaves.

Drive through Alexandria and you’ll see examples of Greek Revivals, with their bold columns, in structures such as the Athenaeum, the peach-hued home of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association, and the Lyceum, the city’s history museum.

Or check out the Brice House and the Hammond House, both in Annapolis, examples of the Georgian style noted for distinctive paneled front doors with decorative crowns and ­pilasters on the side.

“There is a wealth of styles,” says Patrick Andrus, a historian with the National Register of Historic Places. “In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, D.C. was very cosmopolitan, very receptive to architectural styles. . . . D.C. adopted everything that was available.”

Many of those architectural gems still stand, largely because of the preservation movement.

Preservation efforts by homeowners, historians and groups — Cultural Tourism D.C., the D.C. Preservation League, Preservation Maryland, Preservation Virginia and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, just to name a few — have been extensive.

More than 90,000 properties (most of them residential) are on Maryland’s registry, according to state officials. In Virginia, there are more than 41,000 houses listed as historic, most of them in historid districts, says Marc C. Wagner, designation manager at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

To date, more than 25,000 D.C. buildings are in a historic district, says Steve Callcott, deputy preservation officer in the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

Says Andrus: “It’s a rich environment for historic preservation.”

Washington was one of the earliest jurisdictions to create historic districts: first in 1964, although the designation was largely honorary, and later by law in 1978. (Georgetown was even earlier, with the creation of a historic district in 1950 by an act of Congress.)

“We also had some preservation through neglect,” says G. Martin Moeller Jr., senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum and author of the “AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.

“But [the upside] is that we have large areas that are well-preserved — Logan Circle, for example — because there was no pressure to build there in the 20th century,” Moeller says.

The prestige and wealth associated with the region also account for the number of houses worth saving.

Old, modern and modified styles

Important architects with work in the area range from Robert Mills, who designed structures such as the Washington Monument and the Treasury Department building, and the Smithsonian’s James Renwick Jr. to Beaux-Arts master Nathan Corwith Wyeth and modern masters I.M. Pei and Richard Neutra.

The area has plenty of architectural hybrids, too, either because a building was modified or because a builder used elements from more than one style.

One D.C. real estate developer, Harry Wardman, was so well-known for combining architectural elements and working with multiple architects that he practically created his own style. Some local historians call his houses “Washington Row” or “Wardman” style.

“Styles in places like Washington are frequently modified,” Moeller says.

Throughout the region, you may see a fair amount of “pop-ups” — houses with additions on the top level — as well as rear additions.

Preservation favors “compatible changes” that distinguish new from old but complement each other.

“You can make changes. It can be modern,” says Rebecca A. Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. “Preservation doesn’t mean you have matching bricks.”

It’s also not unusual for a center-hall Colonial to sit beside a Mid-Century Modern. Yet, says Joan M. Brierton, a historic preservation specialist, “They all work together.”

There always seems to be more to learn about the history of the neighborhoods — a statute you overlooked, a building or house you didn’t notice before. “I’m constantly surprised and delighted by new things,” says Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Architecture primer

Here’s an overview of some of what’s in our neighborhoods:

  

Georgian (mid-1700s to 1830s):

Beware of imitations. There are tons of replicas of this Colonial-era architecture, which features paneled front doors with decorative crowns and flattened columns, called pilasters, on the side. Georgian architecture is rigidly symmetrical, Moeller says.

On the humble end, a Georgian house might be a simple one- to two-story box, two rooms deep. On the upper end, it often has cornices with decorative moldings and might have two-story columns at the outer edge of the front facade.

These homes are often brick or wood, with chimneys on both sides of the house. The Brice House and the Hammond House are examples. The Friendship House, also known as the Maples or Duncanson House, on D Street SE, is another.

The Old Hotel in Dumfries, the 18th-century mansion also known as Williams Ordinary, is crowned by a wood cornice, and its chimneys are visible from the outside.

 

Federal (late 1700s to 1840):

Another popular period in D.C. architecture — Federal — can run the gamut from the very grand to the quite simple.

Balanced and symmetrical, Federal houses have clean lines but also majesty. Front doors are often surrounded with a decorative crown and have a small entry porch. Larger houses, such as the Woodlawn estate in Mount Vernon, may have side additions known as wings.

Some of the most carefully preserved historic homes are examples of Federal architecture. Among them: Evermay (1623 28th St. NW), Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32nd St. NW) and Halcyon House (3400 Prospect St. NW).

Federal townhouses include the Forrest-Marbury House (3350 M St. NW) and the Yellow House (1430 33rd St. NW), says Kim Williams, an architectural historian in the District’s Historic Preservation Office.

 

Greek Revival (1825 to 1860):

A logical outgrowth of the Federal and Georgian periods, Greek Revival is noted for its severity, Moeller says. The houses are built on a bold scale, with a relative lack of ornamentation.

In the D.C. area, Greek Revivals often have gabled roofs with a low pitch and entry porches supported by columns. The Athenaeum of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association and the Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery, with its eight-column portico, capture the style.

 

Gothic Revival (1840 to 1880):

Gothic Revivals often have windows that extend into gables with a pointed arch.

The windows may have arch shapes or window crowns. Many of the houses include front porches with narrow columns and arches. Some houses are asymmetrical and have towers.

President Lincoln’s Cottage, on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home in the District, would be considered an example of Carpenter Gothic— a modest version of the style built mostly of wood rather than stone, Moeller says.

The Chastleton on 16th Street NW is a condominium building in the Gothic Revival style.

 

Italianate (1840 to 1885):

These houses are several stories and feature eaves with decorated brackets. The wood-sided house at 1312 U St. SE in Anacostia is one. A good example of an Italianate row is Cooke’s Row in Georgetown, says Williams, of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

Two majestic Italianate structures are the Bayne-Fowle House in Alexandria and the Brentmoor mansion in Warrenton.

 

Neoclassical (1895 to 1950):

This is the iconic architecture that immediately comes to mind when you say “D.C.” — the U.S. Supreme Court building, the National Gallery of Art and, of course, the Jefferson Memorial.

The full-height front porch with the classical columns is most striking. Neoclassical buildings might also have roof-line balustrades and side-wing porches.

Two great examples of residences in this style are the Meridian House (1630 Crescent Place NW) and its neighbor, the White-Meyer House (1624 Crescent Place NW) — both designed by architect John Russell Pope, says Andrus of the National Register of Historic Places.

The Causeway, also known as the Tregaron Estate, built in 1912 in Cleveland Park, is an example of Neoclassical Revival.

 

Victorian (mid-1800s to early 1900s):

From the tall Northeast rowhouses with turrets to the wraparound porches in Takoma Park, Victorian elements are widespread.

“A lot of people think of gingerbread houses,” says Marc Schappell, managing partner at Washington Fine Properties and a board member of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

But he and other experts point out that the era has distinct styles, including Second Empire, Queen Anne, Stick and Romanesque Revival.

The most distinguishing feature of Second Empire homes might be their dual-pitched hipped roof with dormer windows. You can see this at the Carlheim mansion in Leesburg and the General Oliver Otis Howard House on the grounds of Howard University.

There are also many examples throughout the Logan Circle neighborhood, says Brierton, the historic preservation specialist.

Romanesque Revival homes are known for their “heaviness” and are often made of stone, Moeller says. They are characterized by round arches — which can be over windows or used for porch supports — and towers with conical roofs.

The house at 408A St. SE in Capitol Hill and the row that spans 1000 to 1008 Pennsylvania Avenue SE are good examples of the Romanesque Revival style, Williams says.

Queen Anne elements include the wraparound front porch, second-story porches or balconies; classical columns; bay windows; painted balustrades; and steeply pitched wooden or slate roofs. Examples are everywhere, including the northwest arc of Logan Circle and in Capitol Hill.

Other interesting Queen Annes include the William W. Early House in Brandywine, the John C. Motter House in Frederick and the Mullett Rowhouses on the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

 

Colonial Revival (late 1800s to mid-1950s):

Spanning more than a century, Colonial Revival is a popular style in the District and its suburbs.

“I don’t know if there’s a neighborhood without it,” Brierton says.

The lines are symmetrical; the windows are often in pairs. A small porch supported by pilasters may cover the front door.

The Fairlington apartment complex in Arlington County is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a fine display of Colonial Revival style. Two other notable examples are the Frances Perkins House (2326 California St. NW) and Meridian Manor in Columbia Heights.

 

Tudor Revival (late 1800s to 1940):

Tudor Revivals are recognized by the decorative wood timbers on their facade; the tall, narrow windows with diamond panes; and the severely pitched roofs. There are, of course, variations on the theme.

The majority of houses in Northwest’s Foxhall Village and in Baltimore’s ­Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood are Tudors.

Another landmark is the Newlands-Corby Mansion in Chevy Chase.

 

Beaux-Arts (1880 to 1920):

From apartment buildings to embassies, Beaux-Arts examples line Massachusetts Avenue NW from Dupont Circle to Sheridan Circle and fill the Meridian Hill area.

Sculptural decoration, grand entrances and staircases, balustrades, pilasters and garlands are typical of Beaux-Arts design. These buildings generally have a flat roof, and many have arched windows.

A classic Beaux-Arts is the Patterson House (now the Washington Club) on Dupont Circle, Moeller says.

The Mexican Cultural Institute, formerly the McVeagh residence, at 2829 16th St. NW was designed by Nathan Wyeth, the only Washington-based architect who received his diploma from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Williams says.

 

American Craftsman (1905 to 1930):

See a bungalow and chances are it’s an American Craftsman, which features low pitched roofs with eaves and front porches with large square columns.

The floor plans are compact, Williams says. (You won’t see the Victorian-era servant wings and quarters.) There’s an all-purpose living room and often a bedroom on the first floor.

Dunblane in Tenleytown is a Craftsman, and the 16th Street Heights neighborhood has many Craftsman and American Foursquare houses.

 

Mid-Century Modern (mid-1940s to mid-1970s):

Pockets of Mid-Century Modern houses can be found in many spots, including Alexandria and Cleveland Park.

These houses are low and boxy, and often feature floor-to-ceiling windows. They have open floor plans and use finishing materials such as steel and aluminum or wood and glass.

Designed by Walter Gropius and the Architects Collaborative, the Hechinger House on Chain Bridge Road in Northwest is an example.

An I.M. Pei-designed house at 3411 Ordway St. NW in Cleveland Park has three barrel-vaulted arches. A collection of other houses designed by Pei is right around the corner on Rowland Place.

Laura Barnhardt Cech is a freelance writer.

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