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.
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.