Dwelling on a Mediocre Past

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

The dear old Phillips Collection is new once again after yesterday's public unveiling of its latest addition: a $27 million expansion to the north along 21st Street NW into space formerly occupied by a nondescript 96-year-old apartment building.

On the face of it, actually, that old apartment building still seems to exist. Because of neighborhood pressures and the city's historic preservation law, its thoroughly unexceptional facade was kept and restored. But everything behind it is brand new.

Such "facadism," as it is often derisively called, has in the past quarter-century become a familiar practice in Washington's many historic districts. On occasion, it is a justified tactic because of a facade's architectural merit and its importance to the urbanistic cadence of its street.

But the Phillips expansion definitely was not one of those occasions. Preserving this facade was a big mistake, a fruitless exercise in neighborhood nostalgia. After nearly 30 years of experience with our preservation ordinance, we as a city ought to have learned not to fear the architectural future, but to embrace it. And then to apply the law accordingly.

Thus, a great opportunity was lost. Instead of getting a new building that speaks honestly about what is behind its facade -- and that speaks for the 21st century while respecting its neighbors -- we got a timorous fake. One of the world's most respected cultural institutions finds itself hiding behind a frumpy relic.

It was sadly ironic, then, at a news conference Monday to listen as Phillips Board Chairman George Vradenburg enthusiastically defined the museum's new educational mission as "focusing on imagination and innovation." Those qualities are notably lacking in the primary elevations of the new building, and in many of the interior arrangements.

Opened in 1921 by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips as a "museum of modern art and its sources," the institution has had an uneven record with its expansions. A year earlier, the couple hired McKim, Mead and White, one of the nation's premier architecture firms, to add a second-floor gallery to their late-19th-century mansion at 21st and Q streets.

So far, so good. That modest addition continued the theme of understated elegance that distinguishes the original house. The 1923 addition of a fourth floor with a mansard roof and dormer windows was, by contrast, a bit heavy-handed, although much needed. (In the 1930s, after the Phillipses moved out, it was in these upstairs rooms that C. Law Watkins initiated the art school that later became the art department at American University.)

The first northward expansion occurred in 1960 with an unpretentiously modern, stone-faced annex connected to the mansion via a glass bridge across an alley. In retrospect, the modesty of this addition, by the Washington firm of Wyeth and King, has much to recommend it. In 1989, it was swallowed up by the Goh Annex, a rather bulky though earnestly contextual exercise that suffered by comparison to the mansion's delicacy of detail. Designed by Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore, it added much-needed exhibition space and was distinguished, on its interior, by a commodious spiral stairwell that was Moore's own elegant flight of fancy.

That brings us to the 21st century and the need for yet another northward expansion. Architect David Cox of the Washington firm Cox, Graae and Spack recalls that after the purchase of the apartment building, there was discussion of "doing a big Corcoran thing that puts the Phillips on the map." He is referring, of course, to the architectural event that didn't happen -- Frank Gehry's bold but stillborn design for a billowing, steel-sheathed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Maybe that's just what the neighbors were afraid of. Such thoughts, however, vanished during the protracted negotiations -- a polite form of aesthetic warfare -- that often characterize the design process in the nation's capital.

A point worth making, though, is that the Gehry analogy is misleading. One does not have to do something astonishingly sculptural to make a very good, or even a profound, modernist statement on Washington's streets. Restraint, delicacy, elegance, rigor -- those are all parts of the modernist vocabulary, too.

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