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Top Floor: Home Goods

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)

Another intention was to capture the automobiles themselves. Hence, the system of ramps, smartly integrated into the overall building, leading cars to and from the innovative rooftop parking deck. The building was a full-service department store wrapped as an economical, forward-looking package.

When the store opened, according to the official District landmark application, a reporter for the Washington Daily News wrote that it looked "like something dreamed up by Norman Bel Geddes for a World's Fair." The apt reference was to the futuristic automotive city Bel Geddes had designed for the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 fair in New York City.

After many tribulations -- the building was twice abandoned, by Sears in 1993 and by Hechinger six years later -- this fine building today serves as a splendid, if improbable, podium for another structure. Well, podium is not quite the word. The old building does not take second place.

Developer Richard Lake, of Roadside Development, insisted that the architects and engineers take all necessary measures to make sure the old retail spaces were not interrupted by structural columns and service ducts for the rooftop addition. Much of the new building's weight is thus carried on a foot-thick concrete slab above the old roof that transfers the load to existing structural supports (whose footings had to be reinforced).

As a result of such foresight, the old Sears is now home to two busy mid-size retailers, a Best Buy and a Container Store, that add a lot of life to the Tenleytown sidewalks and serve local needs. Lake says he is holding a modest space for a cherished neighborhood dream -- a convenient hardware store.

Architects capitalized on the need for lightness in the new structure by choosing off-the-shelf industrial metal panels as sheathing -- the panels weigh a lot less than bricks. Even so, it was an unusual choice for Washington, and especially for a luxury apartment building in a tony area of town.

But the metal works beautifully, particularly in that daring curve along the River Road and Wisconsin Avenue facades. In part, I suspect, this is simply because it is so unusual -- a fresh look in a city of excessive architectural caution.

Of course, the panels weren't simply slapped on, as if the building were a warehouse. They were fit into an adroit and satisfying abstract pattern of window and wall. And, as design principal Robert Sponseller points out, they were given a customized three-coat finish of metallic paint. This explains the subtly alluring changes in the color and reflectivity of the building's skin.

Similar materials were used, not incidentally, in another recent Baranes-designed project, Langston Lofts, on the southeast corner of V and 14th streets NW. In that project, however, the metal was combined with a more conventional brick veneer, and the metal (and glass) was deployed to make strong, contrasty balconies and corners.

(The most intriguing thing about Langston Lofts, however, is not its architecture. It is Busboys and Poets, the ground-floor restaurant/cafe that combines a radical bookstore with a global comfort food menu and super-comfortable digs. Langston Hughes, the man the project was named for, was affectionately called the "busboy poet" early in his career.)

Back on the Wisconsin Avenue hill, the bold curve carries the day. It escorts a distinctive old building into a new century with elan, and adds vitality and a memorable new identity to a city corner that needed both. It is modern architecture that conveys a strong sense of place.

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