By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The design mavens at Apple have charmed legions of gizmo-happy consumers with their sleek and modern creations.
But not the arbiters of architectural style in that preserve of history and tradition known as Georgetown.
Three times, Apple has presented plans for its first Washington store. Three times, a panel of architects has suggested a return to the drawing board.
Too much glass, they objected. Windows that are out of scale with the neighboring brick buildings.
And that Apple logo over the entrance? Way too big.
Each time, Apple came back with a drawing that was more contemporary and as full of glass as the first, if not more.
Today, Apple returns for a fourth round with the Old Georgetown Board, as the panel is known, this time with a drawing that is virtually identical to the first. The encounter is so fraught with uncertainty that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's office has offered to give the computer company advice on how to handle the board and asked to see its latest rendering before the meeting.
"I don't want the Old Georgetown Board having to have the perfect design torpedo a very good product," said Neil O. Albert, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
If Apple is held up again, Albert added, "we will step in and work with both parties to make sure it gets passed."
Apple's struggles with the board are causing anxiety among Georgetown business leaders who say that the store, with its clublike swirl of lingering patrons, would add a jolt of energy to Wisconsin Avenue. They worry that the company will grow fed up and drop its plans for the property, as it did for a New York City site after preservationists resisted Apple's design.
The loss of Apple, business leaders say, would hurt Georgetown, which has found its role as the city's star shopping attraction challenged by emerging areas in Northwest such as U Street and Seventh Street, corridors that are easier to reach by Metro.
"How many times can you take rejection?" Billy Martin, whose family opened Martin's Tavern on Wisconsin Avenue in 1933, said of Apple. "Georgetown doesn't have the appeal that it used to have, so Georgetown better do what it can do to secure anchor businesses like Apple."
"We run the risk of playing too safe for our own good," Martin said.
Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the agency that oversees the Old Georgetown Board, said the panel's mission is to "preserve and protect the character and buildings" in Georgetown, which was established as a historic district in 1950.
Apple and the board, Luebke said, are engaged in a "normal give-and-take" about a "very sensitive location."
"Being asked to do more design work does not constitute a rejection of the proposal," he said. "It's a process. It's one step at a time."
If Apple is playing games by resubmitting more of what the board seems to oppose, the company isn't saying.
Amy Bessette, an Apple spokeswoman, would say only, "We're really looking forward to bringing the Apple experience to Georgetown."
Apple's struggles generated chatter on the Internet after a December article in a community newspaper, the Georgetown Current, quoted a project manager as saying that company founder Steve Jobs "loves" the third design proposal, a modern building that did not pass muster with the board.
"Just propose a Federal style store already, Apple," was the headline on a post that blogger David Alpert wrote on the Web site GreatergreaterWashington.org.
The resistance to Apple has also drawn attention from Michael Tinkler, an art professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Upstate New York, who writes a blog called crankyprofessor.com.
"It's a good example of historic preservation gone a little bit overboard," Tinkler, who writes about art and architecture, said in an interview. "What's wrong with things looking different? It makes for a more vital street landscape."
Apple bought the three-story brick building on Wisconsin Avenue in 2007 with plans to knock it down and put up a store. The company operates 251 retail outlets around the world, including five in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
In September 2007, George Gordon, a local architect who represents Apple, submitted the company's first renderings, with a cornice and trim and five windows across the second floor similar to ones on neighboring buildings.
Although the board considered the windows "a little on the large side," Luebke said the members thought the expansive glass storefront would create a "large void in the rhythm" of the neighboring entrances.
The board members, Luebke said, assured Apple that they were concerned not about modernism but about "issues of scale."
The company returned in July, this time with renderings of a two-story glass facade, one suggesting that an ice cube had landed on Wisconsin Avenue between two shoe stores.
The board's concerns, Luebke said, included "how much light would come from" the store. Tom Birch, a member of Georgetown's Advisory Neighborhood Commission, was less diplomatic in his appraisal: "I felt like it was a jarring, shocking gap in the middle of the block."
The company came back for round three in December, unveiling a design that included a stone facade with a cutout of an eight-foot-high, once-bitten apple. The exterior on the first floor was a glass wall with a door -- bearing a distinct resemblance to the design from the first round.
"What do you think the board said?" Luebke asked.
In advance of today's presentation, Apple on Monday showed its latest renderings to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The commission applauded the design, which appeared to feature only one difference from the first offering: Instead of five windows across the second floor, there are four.
ANC members who had criticized Apple's previous designs applauded the company for its responsiveness to community concerns.
They asked only that Apple consider a bit more detail around the windows.