Correction to This Article
A March 5 Arts photo of the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J., should been credited: Copyright Peter Mauss  Esto.

Little Cause for Applause

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Hugh Hardy has been designing theaters for a hundred years, it seems.

Actually, only 40. But during that time he has been intimately involved in the design of dozens of sparkling new theaters, large and small, from coast to coast. And, in fittingly grand style, Hardy has resurrected many of the nation's finest historical gems -- Radio City Music Hall and the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, for instance, and the Hippodrome in Baltimore.

Hardy, then, indubitably is one of the best in this particular line of creative work. He has proved time and again that he has a special feel for what makes theaters tick and come alive.

So you approach the Hardy-designed Davis Performing Arts Center and its new Gonda Theatre on the Georgetown University campus with a great deal of anticipation. You expect an inviting, comfortable, beautiful, workable theater and, up to a point, you get what you came for.

The Davis Center, however, is disappointing in a crucial respect: Its facades are thoroughly unremarkable.

Oh, they are red brick all right, so they don't make a fuss with the mostly red brick buildings all around. Yet despite attempts here and there to brighten the color and provide a bit of decorative relief, the building is really pretty dull.

That is hardly appropriate for a contemporary theater building. Nor does it pay the right kind of compliment to its campus neighborhood.

And it's not what the architect, in his best moments, had in mind.

Hardy's vision for the building's exterior was to cover key parts of it in geometric patterns of dark and light bricks, derived from Victorian-era buildings and pattern books. Judging by the (admittedly rather raw) computer renderings of the patterned design, it would have brought much-needed color and vivacity to the building.

That is not to claim that reviving patterned brick is a stroke of genius, or anything like it. Dating back to the postmodernist years of the late 1970s and '80s, the practice is by now far from trendy, to put it mildly. But it would have worked wonders on that Georgetown hill.

Somehow, Hardy's best ideas were worn away during the process of design -- not an unfamiliar occurrence in Washington. It is somewhat refreshing to report, however, that in this case, the culprit was not the city's demanding regime of design review. To the contrary. The civic reviewers were enthusiastic about the patterned brick.

"When you've seen evidence of a design that at one point was pretty exciting, it's a disappointment to see that it all got washed out," said Mary Oehrlein, chairman of the Old Georgetown Board, the chief reviewing agency for historic Georgetown. "I was surprised to see Hugh Hardy trying to back off," board member John McCartney said. "If anybody was going to do it well, he would be the person."

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