THE UNPREDICTABLE harmonics of taste have redeemed the Art Deco style of the 1930s and '40s with something more than the respectability of preservationist attention -- a new constituency of young devotees now embraces the streamlined extravagances of that period with a zeal and enthusiasm approaching rapture. In recent weeks the president of the Art Deco Society of Washington, Richard Striner, lost 10 pounds during his successful vigil protesting the threatened total demolition of Silver Spring's moderne Silver theater.
In the past decade there has been a spate of books celebrating renewed interest in the Art Deco relics of Los Angeles, New York (both Manhatan and the Bronx), Miami Beach, Seattle, and Tulsa. Now our city joins this urbane company with the appearance of the new picture album Washington Deco: Art Deco Design in the Nation's Capital by two architectural historians, Hans Wirz and the above-mentioned Richard Striner. The result is an engaging and scholarly production of the Smithsonian Institution Press which strives for -- and approaches -- exhaustive documentation of an architectural style that flourished in Washington between the two world wars, but only as a complementary minor key, an obbligato, to the city's prevailing theme of classic monumentality.
Most of the buildings Wirz and Striner list in the appendix to their book were completed before they were born. They perceive Art Deco, despite all its futurist anticipations, as a kind of instant antiquity and with a poignance perhaps not available to an earlier generation who had to cope with all that chrome and glass brick and vitrolite at first hand. Those were days when adjectives like "stunning" and "ritzy" and "swanky" were rife in the land.
The people who built all those jazzy shopping centers and movie palaces never thought they were committing Art Deco at the time. What they strove for was a brassy new look of zigzagged and curved surfaces, an eclectic collage of historical styles, at once popular and urbane, and they called it Modernistic or "moderne" style. Although the term Art Deco was derived from the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts D,ecoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925, it was curiously not adopted into general critical use until retrospectively in the late 1960s. And throughout the 1950s there was hardly an architecture school in the country that did not excoriate the movement as a cheap and vulgar esthetic, excessively ornamental and lacking in structural integrity.
The modernistic style was introduced to Washington thus not so much by old guard architects as by individual real estte developers bent on profit but indulging their personal taste -- many of the names are still familiar today, names like Morris Cafritz, Gustave Ring, Alvin Aubinoe, and Harry Kay. These entrepreneurs built scores of apartments and garden apartments, but also stores (the Hahn shoe stores won an award), offices, small half-block shopping centers, and even laundries; and they were spread all over town in a remarkable functional, demographic, and geographic range -- not just in the affluent Northwest quadrant, but in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest as well, not to mention Anacostia and Prince Georges County. And would you believe fine specimens in Camp Springs and Hyattsville, in Greenbelt and on Lee Highway? Thus it is refreshing to find Washington Deco paying attention to the easily neglected architecture outside the Northwest mainstream.
The city is full of previously unheralded mother lodes of Art Deco. No other guide documents the showbiz ,elan of the apartments along Luzon Avenue. Who weeps for Luzon Avenue, the diagonal cul de sac off 16th Street just below the Walter Reed Army Medical Center? Go there and exult in Numbers 6323 and 6600 which are listed in the book, and also for 6524 which is not. And there are few readers who will not be taken unawares to learn of the best row of such period houses in the city, the semi-detached residences with florid cubist detail designed by Harry Sternfeld in 1935, to be found largely ignored but not hidden except by overgrown shrubs at 6101-6121 14th Street NW, just above Military Road.
Wirz and Striner labored prodigally to compile the first comprehensive listing of the city's Art Deco buildings, culling through architectural periodicals of the time, driving through miles of likely streets with camera at the ready, and spending long nights scanning microfilms of D.C. building permits that turned up by chance in the National Archives. They have organized their appendix sensibly by building types: residential, commercial, recreational, and institutional and public -- with listings by streets alphabetically or numerically, and by suburban counties in each category. They conclude with a catchall rubric of "related and transitional" for marginal entries like Little Tavern diners and government buildings and churches "too close to historical continuities . . . to incorporate Art Deco in its more flamboyant moods." One can regret that even this class was not ample enough to admit listing of the handsome St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church (Johnson & Boudin) on Woodley Road across from the Sheraton Washington or the equally refined Apostolic Delegation at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street NW.
THE 15 color plates are all by Hans Wirz. The 85 black-and-white photographs are from contemporary sources whenever possible, drawing fortuitously from the unique plates of commercial buildings of the Horydczak Collection recently left to the Library of Congress. The texts deals with critical issues authoritatively but without pedantry; but the authors go beyond the narrow range of scholarship to capture the exuberant spirit of this architectural flowering in its total economic, social, esthetic and cultural context.
Part of the charm of Art Deco is that it was devoid of manifesto -- even vernacular -- and without the tiresome doctrinal presumptions of architectural purists. At a time when the arbiters of taste were polarized in an uncompromising battle between the no- frills purity of the International style and the correct classicism of the Beaux Arts legacy, Art Deco accommodated and bridged the rival tendencies.
It is an acid test of criticism if it changes the way we look at things. After reading Washington Deco one sees in a new light the dramatic composition of the Sears, Roebuck store at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street NW. And anyone who thinks Art Deco lacks subtlety should see Wirz's photograph of the low relief floral tendrils on the telephone company's building at 730 12th Street NW. This book is a splendid and welcome addition to the literature on Washington's architectural legacy.