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Kennedy-Warren's Welcome Addition

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page C05

Like faithful spouses and steady friends, favorite buildings sometimes suffer from unintended neglect.

So it was for many years between me and the wonderful Kennedy-Warren apartment building on its woodsy lot at 3133 Connecticut Ave. NW, near the entrance to the National Zoo. I would walk by the building at least three or four times a week but, in a sense, I didn't even see it, despite its great size and architectural presence.

Bigger and better: The living room of a model apartment in the Kennedy-Warren. (Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)

This mindless inattention came to a halt one day late in the last century when someone slipped a handbill into the mail slot of my front door. At the top of the single sheet of paper were two copier-muddied images. One seemed to show the Kennedy-Warren I had known and loved (and ignored) over the years. The other was all trees and sky.

My outrage was instantaneous. The flier appeared to be a protest against demolishing the Kennedy-Warren, an altogether shocking proposition. I asked myself who would possess the stupidity, not to mention the gall, to do such a thing. Then and there I was ready to link hands with others in front of the wrecking ball.

But, reading on, I quickly figured out that I had it all turned around. The maker of the flier was protesting a proposed expansion of the Kennedy-Warren, not its demolition. My relief was likewise instantaneous. At last, I thought, somebody has had the good sense to do what should have been done long ago: Make the building bigger and, therefore, better.

Such a more-of-a-good-thing argument was sure to be lost on the flier-maker and his or her allies. As it turned out, opposition did indeed delay the start of construction for a couple of years. But the big shovels finally began digging in 2002, and now we have the bigger and in many ways better Kennedy-Warren.

Today, when you pause in front of the building, you can clearly see that the big new addition to the south of the pyramidal, copper-roofed tower does what Joseph Younger, the original architect back in 1931, said it would do. That is, it impressively anchors an almost symmetrical composition of massive architectural forms.

Younger had drawn it up that way, but the Great Depression intervened, and the Kennedy-Warren -- named for its developers, Edgar S. Kennedy and Monroe Warren Sr. -- was not completed as planned. The south wing, with two massive projecting bays, was not built, and for seven decades the great building had a slightly lopsided look. No longer. That pyramidal tower and the ground-level courtyard with its handsome fountain and brilliant art deco porte-cochere are at last the focal points of an urbane centerpiece.

The second remarkable thing about the new architecture is that, on the outside, it looks almost exactly like the old, as if Younger himself had supervised the design. In a curious sense, he did. The B.F. Saul Co., owner of the building, sought out the Washington firm of Hartman-Cox to oversee the design and was able to provide the new architectural team (partners Warren Cox and Graham Davidson with project architect Richard Houghton) with some of Younger's original architectural drawings.

Then, too, as Davidson points out, "We had the original building to use as a resource." The new architects were able to measure precisely just about each and every part, from fluted pilaster to decorative sunburst. To reproduce the cast aluminum panels that are so distinguishing a feature of the original building, they simply handed over one of the panels to a foundry to be cast again.

Exact copying wasn't always possible. The original bricks, with their speckled wheat, faded linen, catfish gray and orange-crush hues, are among the small glories of the architecture. They greatly enliven enormous facades that appear almost monochrome from afar. But the variety of tones, says Davidson, was the result of firings in beehive-shaped kilns, which today are environmental no-nos. Hartman-Cox had to make do with a palette of four different bricks -- gray, beige, speckled beige and orangish -- mixed in a random pattern.

Not surprisingly, the new walls are not quite as rich as the old. Then again, in the large scheme of things, the difference doesn't matter. The new wings look like freshly scrubbed versions of the old. It's as if we are getting the chance to see how the Kennedy-Warren looked when it was new and shiny.

Copying, of course, is not a fashionable thing to do these days, with the pendulum of architectural taste or ideology (or whatever you want to call it) having swung decisively in the direction of contrast and originality. But even though modern architecture has reinvented itself in astoundingly creative ways in recent years, copying remains the right thing to do in certain cases. The Kennedy-Warren addition certainly is one of these.

Deference remains a civic virtue, too. Even when not literally copying, the Hartman-Cox team was paying respect to Younger. The southern and eastern facades of the new wing, for instance, are "sort-of Younger," in Davidson's apt description. The stone balconies, for example, are nowhere in the original building, but were thought to be necessary amenities for today's upper-end housing market. Accordingly, they were designed in Youngeresque fashion, with those curious grape-cluster posts carried over from the front facades.

A similar, respectful philosophy guided both interior renovations to the elegant, "Aztec-deco" lobby and other shared spaces of the old building and the design of common spaces in the new wing. (Johnson-Berman of Baltimore and the Hartman Design Group of Rockville contributed to the interior design.) Things aren't exactly the same, but they're close enough to preserve the spirit of the original.

The new living quarters, on the other hand, are another thing altogether -- the 114 new units are a lot bigger and more luxurious than most of the 317 units in the old segments of the building. (Predictably, the new places are more expensive, too, with rents starting at $2,100.)

By the way, I'm not sure that in this case the old arguments hold about reducing automobile traffic by placing new apartments near Metro train stations: From what I've observed, the new tenants (understandably) love to drive their very expensive cars into and out of the expanded underground garage.

So the Kennedy-Warren has regained its rightful spot on my personal homage list. Most days, I no longer walk by without noticing. And, often, I stop to admire just how many things Younger (and Hartman-Cox) got right.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company