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Georgetown Riverfront Building Mirrors an Industrial Evolution

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page C01

Few areas of the city have changed as much in the past three decades as the highly visible slice of steep terrain in Georgetown between the C&O Canal and the Whitehurst Freeway. Because the transformation has been so gradual, however -- so year by year and piece by piece -- it is sometimes easy to forget how dramatic and thorough it has been.

Industry and warehousing still dominated the hill when the freeway was built in 1949, but this started to change in the late 1960s. Today, the territory is almost completely taken over by large buildings for ad agencies, architects, sundry businesses and, most recently, condominium apartments for the extremely well-heeled.

A window washer outside 3303 Water St. lowers himself past the Whitehurst Freeway. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Architecturally, this mile-long stretch is one of the most heavily regulated districts in a heavily regulated city, subject to a formidable array of local and federal reviewing agencies. The National Park Service, steward of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, long ago set the tone by insisting that, even in new architecture, something of the "unique urban industrial character" of the canal's edges be preserved.

This explains, by and large, the vast expanses of red brick and dark, metal-framed glass on all of those big buildings on the hill. It's a bit much, a bit too monochromatic and uniform. Yet there are only two or three real duds among the dozen or so large buildings constructed in the last 30 years. Struggling with the difficult mandate to design something that's authentically new and yet reflective of a particular past, two generations of architects have done pretty well.

The most recent of the buildings is a case in point. This is a just-completed, 72-unit condominium apartment building that takes up three-quarters of a large plot of ground bordered by the canal, the freeway and 33rd and 34th streets. The official address is 3303 Water St. NW, but don't go there expecting to see much of the building, for you'll find yourself in the deep shadows of the Whitehurst Freeway. (There is, however, an interesting view looking straight up between the new facade and the freeway's edge.)

What's most intriguing about the architecture is a palpable tension between "old" and new, even though there is nothing literally old about the building. From foundation to roof, everything is new. Yet there is a certain look of oldness. Frank Schlesinger, one of the architects, says the building "can be thought of as an industrial mill that has been converted into a series of loft apartments."

And that's true, at a glance. When you are speeding by on the Whitehurst, for instance, or thinking of other things while walking across one of those pedestrian bridges above the canal, you might quickly reflect, "Gee, that's a terrific renovation." And then you might think, "Hey, wait a minute, that wasn't there the last time I passed this way." And then, you might pause to take a really good look at what enables this building to transcend the potential, Disneyesque pitfalls of trying to make new buildings that look old.

The main element is the amount and quality of exterior glass surfaces. At crucial points in the design -- in the cantilevered elevation above the Whitehurst Freeway, and in the creatively stepped-back corners of the eastern facade -- the windows aren't really windows: They are glass walls with crisply detailed, industrial-style black metal frames and mullions. The glass "curtain wall" is of course an almost hoary standard of modernist design, one celebrated at its best for its elegance. It's fun to see the standard replayed here so skillfully in such utilitarian dress.

The transparency also serves an extra-aesthetic purpose, of course. Those glass walls, along with the very big windows in other parts of the building, provide splendid urban views -- peaceful on the canal side, exciting on the freeway side, with the Potomac just beyond. Views are the attraction here, the lure for all that money. Anthony Lanier, president of the Georgetown-based EastBanc development company, says he was sure there was a high-end market out there for superior urban condos, and he was proven right: The 72 units in this building sold out even before construction was completed, at an average price of $1.5 million.

(Those are Manhattan prices, I used to think. But in today's Washington, a $1 million-plus price tag for an urban condo is an everyday story. All but three of the 26 super-luxury units in the mixed-use Incinerator project, another of EastBanc's undertakings on the Georgetown waterfront, have now been sold, Lanier says, at an average price of $3.5 million.)

Not all of the residences in the Water Street building benefit from those impressive glass walls, of course. But, taking advantage of the L-shaped site plan, the design team cleverly provided alternative amenities for several of the lower-level units, giving each two floor levels and a fenced-in back yard -- in effect, absorbing a typical Georgetown row house pattern into an apartment building. Not much could be done, however, to provide happy views to the units underneath the Whitehurst. (The prices, though, dropped to a mere $500,000 or so.)

The architectural team consisted of Gary Edward Handel Associates of New York, the architect of record, working with Schlesinger in the early phases of the design. Landscaping was handled by the Washington firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. Architectural historian Emily Eig of EHT Traceries provided research on late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial buildings.

The landscape work was not just a matter of attractive foundation plantings, as it turned out. For reasons both ecological and economic, Lanier wanted to add a "green roof" to the four-story Pepco substation that occupies about a quarter of the lot.

"It was quite a job to get approved, as you can imagine, putting all that water on top of electricity," recalls landscape architect James van Sweden. "But after a couple of years, Pepco finally became convinced it wouldn't leak."

Thus a typical Oehme, van Sweden assortment of ornamental grasses and other perennials is planted in soil supported by a multilayered, rubberized membrane. It's good for the environment, of course, because it eliminates rainwater runoff and reduces reflective heat gain. It is pretty, too. Residents today look out over a green roof that has a wintertime tonality of beiges and browns.

All in all, 3303 Water St. is an interesting complement to its unusual setting. Like other good buildings in the area, however, it does make you wish the regulators would lighten up a bit about this historical thing, both literally and figuratively, and let the present have more of a say. T.S. Eliot once wrote, "The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is altered by the past." Eliot was writing about literature, of course, but it's a dictum that architects in Georgetown, as elsewhere in Washington, might want to keep in mind.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company