Top Floor: Home Goods
Condo Building Above the Old Sears Throws Landmark a Beautiful Curve

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.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company