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The sweeping architecture of Cityline at Tenley complements the distinctive look of the former Sears store (shown above in 1941) atop which it was built.
The sweeping architecture of Cityline at Tenley complements the distinctive look of the former Sears store (shown above in 1941) atop which it was built. (Above: Maxwell Mackenzie; Left: Sears & Roebuck Archives)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 3, 2005

It's the big curve that does it -- the dramatic architectural gesture, the break from the norm.

How else to explain the grace, the fittingness, the beauty of the rather large new building constructed on the roof of the old Sears store at 4500 Wisconsin Ave. NW, a building that in itself once had -- and still has, in fact -- its own particular charms.

The curve begins in the north, on River Road, and sweeps more than 300 feet all the way to Albemarle Street. At once elegant and surprising, the curve attracts your eye and keeps it moving.

Its proportions are just right. The new building seems about twice the height of the old, a satisfying ratio. Not too big, not too small. Because it is set atop columns on the roof, most of which you do not see from the ground, the building almost seems to float, despite its size.

And though you might think the facade materials would clash, they don't. Above, furrowed panels of silvery industrial metal. Below, rectangles of board-formed concrete, set in an elongated checkerboard pattern. The textures and colors are different but in the same spectrum of expression. They complement each other.

These aesthetic decisions by the Washington architecture firm Shalom Baranes Associates were made in the cause of an urban cliche whose time has come again: living above the store.

For much of the nation's history, this was the norm in American cities and towns. On a typical Main Street or city avenue, the ground floors of buildings would be lined with retail stores and, up above, people lived in apartments or even just single rooms stacked two or three stories tall in most towns, even higher in cities.

But the pattern didn't fit the suburban ideal -- it was too noisy, too active, too crowded, too all-mixed-up. With an ever-quickening pace after World War II, stores and people began to abandon the Main Streets and urban avenues, and only recently have both begun to trickle back.

Cityline at Tenley -- that's the name of the 204-unit condominium building atop the old Sears store -- thus gains significance by being a prominent sign of a mostly healthy trend. The building is a super-efficient use of urban space and it adds residents right where it should -- directly above a Metro station and within walking distance of most services.

The unhealthy aspect of the trend, in Washington and elsewhere in the region (and in most parts of the nation, for that matter), is the lack of economic mix. Like many of the new residential buildings downtown or in Northwest, this one might as well have a sign outside telling poor people -- or even moderate income folks -- to keep out.

Cityline's units, most of them already sold, range from more than $300,000 to more than $1 million. It's sad, but close observers of local real estate will recognize these prices as normal, or maybe even a bit low, for a city that's on a high-end residential roll. The city and regional supply crisis of affordable housing -- and crisis is not too strong a word -- continues apace.

In 1941, when Sears built this store, which takes up half the block bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, River Road, and Albemarle and 42nd streets NW, a primary aim was to attract the attention of automobile commuters. Hence, the dramatic corner display window at Albemarle and Wisconsin, with its aerodynamic concrete canopy and 17-feet-high sheets of clear glass.

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