Gaudy and Grand Elevations on Seventh Street

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two big new buildings on booming Seventh Street NW, alike in so many ways. Both are extra large and super complicated, and both add significantly to the vitality of Washington's transformed downtown.

Yet architecturally they are worlds apart.

Gallery Place, extending south along Seventh Street from H Street to MCI Center, where G Street used to be, treats architecture rather cynically, as if it were just a convenient covering, a faddish stage set, a jarring -- if lively -- kit of disparate parts.

By contrast, the Jefferson at Penn Quarter, just two blocks south at Seventh and E streets NW (and extending on down to D Street), is an earnest, and largely successful, attempt to convey a sense of civility, solidity and continuity with the past.

The Jefferson is a bit dull, a bit heavy, but it's also somehow lovable -- and we'll get back to that. Shiny Gallery Place, on the other hand, is not dull. But it's ugly. It was designed more or less by committee, with different architectural firms responsible for separate parts of the whole, and the result is a stupefying mishmash.

Fake-looking "historical" retail street fronts are tacked on like pop-out paper toys to the large structures that make up the bulk of the project. The fakery itself is galling, even if some of the details such as columns or cornices obviously have been copied from genuine historical examples. For a reality test, all one has to do is look directly across to the west side of Seventh Street, where an entire row of genuine 19th-century buildings has been miraculously preserved and, in recent years, renovated.

It's an easy and in some ways depressing lesson. East side: fake. West side: real. What's going on? The mall is coming to the city, that's what. The retail part of the Gallery Place puzzle -- which also includes 192 condominium residences (all sold), underground parking, a 14-theater cineplex and 250,000 square feet of office space -- is, in effect, a chunk of suburban mall transferred to a genuine city street.

Ironies abound. For one thing, mall builders a couple of decades ago got the idea to use real city retail streets as an example, so mall stores began to sport individualistic fronts patterned after Main Street or even Fifth Avenue. But now that the technique is coming back to the city, transliterated by the mall experience, it's easy to see that a certain quality was lost.

Of course, Gallery Place is not alone. For instance, there's that unconvincing Main Street row on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights and that friendlier-than-thou enclave in Arlington's Clarendon district. But for sheer architectural effrontery, Gallery Place is in a class of its own -- any pretense of authenticity has been abandoned in favor of lacquer-like paint jobs and easy entertainment.

It's sad, and laughably over-the-top -- "Victorian" sconces tacked onto "classical" columns, or "Chinese" features added to remind strangers (or even regulars) that Washington's shrinking Chinatown is still right around the corner. Another irony, if that indeed is the word, is that these supposed compliments to Chinatown only reinforce the scary feeling that this ethnic enclave, such as it is, is about to be swallowed by new development all around.

One more ironic twist: Even those long underused, recently renovated historic structures on the west side of Seventh Street are now populated mostly with the kind of global (or at least national) restaurants you see across the street in Gallery Place. Or, for that matter, that you would find anywhere in Upscale, USA.

Despite these failings, Gallery Place has received plaudits for its economic planning and urban design. By and large, they're deserved. Herbert Miller, the head of Western Development, a joint venture partner with the John Akridge Cos. in this project (which also received a significant tax break from the city government), knows by experience that critical mass is essential to retail success. Miller's firm developed Potomac Mills and Georgetown Park, among other major retail conglomerations. Thus, Gallery Place provides plenty of space to a good mix of well-known stores and restaurants.

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