Page 2 of 2   <      

Gaudy and Grand Elevations on Seventh Street

Also, circulation and spatial patterns are well designed to encourage pedestrian movement around and through the project. A retail alley in the south, separating Gallery Place from MCI Center, effectively leads folks back to the movieplex lobby, itself a spacious atrium. There's even a through-block connection, called "China Walk," that leads you through the building from this lobby all the way to H Street. Such through-block connections, once prevalent, have become increasingly rare in the security architecture of our day.

However, none of this gets Gallery Place off the architectural hook. It's hard to know where the responsibility lies. Arquitectonica, the famous Miami firm, was involved in the concept design for the whole project, says Akridge spokeswoman Mary Margaret Hiller, while the Development Design Group of Baltimore did the exterior retail design, and the Washington office of HKS did the working drawings and is the architect of record.

That's another way of saying that no one firm or person was in charge of overall design -- a formula for inconsistency. Maybe inconsistency was the developer's intent. In any case, that bright green bay on the side of the condominium building, the cornice line with that overhanging eave and those exaggerated but contemporary-looking brackets, suggest a different, better alternative. Had the same architectural sensibility been carried through the entire project, we might have ended up with a modern building that was comic and yet serious at the same time. Or, at the very least, the craziness would have been contemporary in feeling, like a timely good joke instead of a stale bad one.

Two blocks to the south, the Jefferson's mix of uses is simpler. The big brick building that weaves around a baker's dozen historic properties (or at least historic facades) is filled to the brim with 428 condominium residences, all sold. Retail is confined strictly to ground-floor spaces, including -- eureka for all those new downtown residents -- one large enough to house a decent grocery store. There's also underground parking and the distinctive underground Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Washington's Philip Esocoff, the Jefferson's primary designer (with Oehrlein and Associates as historic preservation architects), characterizes the project as "an encyclopedia" of historic preservation strategies. In addition to a full-scale renovation, there are facades preserved in place and facades taken down only to be put back up, a facade replication from an old photograph and several reconstituted "orphan" facades.

These were saved in the 1980s by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., and were forced upon Esocoff and JPI, the developer. Esocoff, with more than two decades of Washington experience, did well by all of these historic units, but I must say there was at least one "orphan" facade too many -- rather than being hidden behind a mediocre, foot-thick, 19th-century face, Woolly Mammoth deserved an expressive, contemporary front on D Street.

The main point of this comparison, however, is to underline the virtues of having a decisive design sensibility in charge from beginning to end. The Jefferson is a bit overweight, yes. Esocoff loves masonry and is practically a genius at making bricks and stone sing in unusual ways. But the sheer amount of wall space, perhaps suggesting a lighter touch, proved to be almost too much even for him.

Nonetheless, the more you look, the more you like. Note, for instance, how subtly Esocoff sculpted the top edges of his big building to counteract the often numbing flatness enforced by the city's height limitation. It's a fresh solution to an old problem.

Note, too, the many enriching, well-crafted details. Stone lintels and sills that frame sash windows with such precise circumspection. The little cylindrical curve in the brickwork at the alley intersection mid-block on E Street -- a nice touch, a gentle surprise. Wavy silver struts that enliven tiny balconies three floors above the E Street sidewalk. (Blink, and for just a second you might imagine yourself in Barcelona.)

Esocoff is the rare architect with a contemporary outlook who also embraces ornament, but he hardly ever overplays his hand. Chances therefore are good that our daughters' daughters will admire Esocoff's Jefferson. What they'll think about overdone Gallery Place, if it hasn't by then been changed beyond recognition, is anybody's guess.

<       2

© 2005 The Washington Post Company