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Wright's Bold Vision for Reshaping the Capital

By Katherine Salant
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Unbeknown to most of its residents, Washington has a truly unusual architectural distinction: It is home to the site of one of the 20th century's most famous unbuilt projects, Frank Lloyd Wright's Crystal City.

Designed by the greatest architect America has ever produced, Wright's 1940 Crystal City project was bold in scale and breathtaking in its aesthetic vision. It reflected, to an extent, the oversize personality of the man himself.

The original drawings and a newly constructed scale model are among the many Wright projects on view until Aug. 23 at New York's Guggenheim Museum, which is celebrating its 50th year in Wright's famous spiral tower.

Crystal City was designed for D.C.'s last large undeveloped tract, a 10-acre parcel in the Temple Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington. The site included the area where the Hilton Washington now sits and extended all the way down Connecticut to Florida Avenue. Though commonplace now, its mix of commercial uses (retail, entertainment and hotel) with residential (apartments) was unprecedented in 1940.

The grandiose scale was a testament to the ambitions of Wright's developer client, Roy S. Thurman. Thurman's financing was uncertain at best, but he thought big -- with, for example, visions of a hotel cocktail lounge that was longer than a football field.

By any standard, Crystal City was massive. Its 2,500-room hotel alone was more than double the size of the 1,070-room Hilton that occupies about the same amount of land Wright had allocated to both the hotel and apartments.

At the upper end of the site that backed onto Adams Morgan, Wright placed 14 closely spaced high-rise towers that overlooked a large park and an adjoining terrace. The terrace was huge, built on a raised platform that extended to the southern edge of the site where five terraces of retail shops stepped down to Florida Avenue.

Wright's towers deftly masked this bulk; another advantage of the tower arrangement was that it provided most rooms and apartments with a sweeping view of the city below.

Thurman hoped his project, with its extensive retail and 1,100-seat theater, would become a new commercial center, drawing thousands of customers from every corner of the city and the distant suburbs. To accommodate cars, Wright tucked a parking structure behind the retail and under the terraced platform.

In contrast to the surrounding city, filled with buildings stylistically rooted in the past, Wright's work exhibited his own aesthetic that was thoroughly modern and forward-looking. The 14 towers were to be clad in white marble, bronze that would weather to green, and vast areas of glass, hence the moniker Crystal City. (Initially it was called Crystal Heights.)

Because the project was never built, Wright's design is tantalizingly incomplete, and some parts are more detailed than others.

The hotel was spread across 11 of the 14 towers; a typical floor plan designed by Wright shows that the towers were connected by bridges and that about half the rooms had working fireplaces.

Far more is known about the apartment towers because they were originally designed for another unbuilt Wright project, his 1929 St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie in New York City.

The footprint of each apartment tower was a relatively small square with each duplex unit occupying one quadrant. Each duplex was identical, with the two upper-level bedrooms opening onto the living-dining area below. Both floors were flooded with natural light that poured through an enormous window that wrapped around the two outside walls and extended from the sill height in the living-dining area to the ceiling of the upper level. This expanse of glass was roughly 15 feet high.

Clearly designed for a Manhattan market, the luxury apartments were small, with only about 800 square feet of useable floor area.

Wright's St. Mark's apartment design was finally realized in 1956 in Bartlesville, Okla., where a single tower was built with some modifications. Three-quarters of the building served as the corporate headquarters of the H.C. Price Co.; one-fourth was the duplex apartment units.

Why did the Crystal City project run aground?

The District's zoning board refused to give a variance allowing a commercial-residential mix for a residential zone. The board also objected to the height of the towers, which considerably exceeded the District's limit. Wright's central tower was 24 stories, or about 240 feet high; the others were 14. In a residential zone then and now, the height limit is 90 feet; in a commercial zone it's 110 to 130 feet.

Both Thurman and Wright were prepared to reduce the height, but the commercial components were crucial to the project's financial success. When the zoning board refused to budge, Thurman pulled the plug.

Though the recorded minutes of the zoning board meetings held strictly to the facts, Harvard professor and noted Wright scholar Neil Levine said that the board members were known to harbor a strong dislike for modern architecture, which clearly influenced their decision.

How did Wright feel about the demise of his project?

He probably took the news with a degree of equanimity, says Hilary Ballon, another Wright scholar, based at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus. Though sorely disappointed, Wright knew that another obstacle existed: His personal papers, now archived at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., show that he hired a private detective agency to check Thurman's bona fides before working with him. When the agency reported that Thurman was behind in paying his rent, Wright knew the prospect of gaining the financial backing to build anything was slim.

But Ballon says the architect went ahead with the pipe dream anyway -- as a vehicle to advance his ideas and possibly to attract clients with the resources to build a huge project in an urban area, a long unrealized ambition.

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