To some extent, Washington architecture might be said to have been frightened before birth by the Capitol of the United States.
Monumental architecture is, of course, appropriate to the august capital of an august country. Everything in Washington needs a certain dignity about it. In the shadow of the Washington Monument, you tend to stand as tall as your age and infirmities will allow. On a clear day in Washington, it sometimes looks as though marble columns hold up the sky. It must be hard for an architect to be even a bit frivolous in the midst of the city's mass of marble.
So while we could use a bit more color and a great deal more fun in our municipal architecture, it behooves us here to think seriously about every building that goes up, no matter how humble its purpose.
It is good to report that two New York City architects, Ulrich Franzen and Charles Gwathmey, serving with Forrest Wilson, chairman of the Catholic University architecture department here, found a great variety of Washington-area buildings worthy of awards at the end of the Bicentennial year.
The awards were sponsored by the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The jury had about 66 entries to consier - 10 more than last year. Architects, as one of them commented, had lots of time to enter contests this year, with building construction down.
Honor-award winners are; Merritt Elementary School at 50th and Hayes Streets NE, by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon (now Keyes, Condon & Florance), and the R. Conant House in Potomac, Md., by George Hartman and Warren Cox. Merit awards went to architect Emil Kish for a reconstruction of Fort Frederick in Maryland and to Keyes, et al, for Pepco substation No. 18, Third and E Streets SW, and the Anacostia skating pavilion, between the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge and the Sousa Bridge along Kenilworth Avenue SE and the river.
According to Frank Duane, awards chairman, the out-of-town jurors were considerably surprised to find they had made three of the five awards to the same firm. Nobody in the Potomac Chapter was surprised - the Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon firm has won more of the chapter's awards than any other firm: about a fourth of all the awards the AIA chapter has given in its 27 years.Not a single year has gone by in which they haven't won at least one, though everybody thought it was rather outrageous the year they won five. The Conant house by Hartman and Cox has won a great number of other awards as well, including the prestigious House and Home award.
To those who tend to think in stereotypes, it seemed surprising that two high-powered New York architects would give an award for a restoration, actually a rebuilding of a fort, no matter how charming and well done. At one time, contemporary architects thought they'd be struck by lightning if they admitted they liked a pastiche, a building in the manner of a past style. But these are more eclectic times, and architects and their critics no longer ride so high a horse.
Fort Frederick, in Fort Frederick State Park, was a fascinating problem to architect Kish. As a native of Hungary (now an American citizen), he was more familiar with castles against the Turks than forts against the indians. "I had to spend a great deal of time catching up on American history before I could start the design," Kish admitted. "It was really grand. I fell in love with this country while I was researching."
Kish had the help of Russ Kimmel, a historian; Steven Israel and William Liesenbein, archeologists, and Carl Strandberg, photo archeologist. They researched the fort in the National Archives here and even in King George Ill's papers in London.
First they found out it was built in 1756, which would make most people think it originally would have been either log, in the English style, or stone, in the French manner. Kish already had a set of plans put together to build it with logs, when a 1778 letter, actually an inventory, came to light describing the fort when it was used as a prison for Hessian soldiers. The letter plainly stated that the fort was of clapboard, in the frame style popular then in the Maryland hinterland.
The fort was built by Maryland Gov. Horatio Sharpe. It offered protection for Maryland settlers in the French and Indian wars and was reputed to be so strong that it never was attacked.
When restoration began, there was nothing to speak of above ground. Infrared aerial photographys, however, showed the lines of the outer fortifications and embankments. The remnants of the foundations of the buildings "as clearly drew the floor plan as if we had it on paper," Kish said.
An old stone wall, 90 per cent intact, was repaired and a barracks building was reconstructed on the old foundations. The building is long and skinny with a fine double deck stretching its length, giving it a strong, yet rather romantic look. The barracks is now the home for the volunteer First Maryland Regiment, the military buffs in brilliant colonial costumes who perform intricate military exercises of the period on most historic holidays. They are expected to be in residence for three or four days at a time during the summer, cooking in the big stone fireplaces, reading by lanterns (electrified but not that bright), and going to adjacent facilities to use the plumbing - there's water but there are no plumbing fixtures in the barracks.
Kish worked with the builder, Floyd Culler, to be sure the stonework was laid just as it would have been done then. No power tools were used where the circular cut would show. The visible nails are all hand forged.
The first phase of the restoration cost $350,000, some $20,000 under the budget allocation - to the great surprise of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The Anacostia pavilion was designed to be a large multi-purpose area, roofed but open to the air on the sides. Colden Florance, the partner in charge, still wakes up in the middle of the night thinking of ways to put up curtains against the wind, so that it can be used all year around. But he was asked to do an open pavilion.
Most of the time the pavilion is used for roller skating. It's all wired so that the whole building seems to be a giant jukebox playing music to skate by. "It's really sort of thrilling to come up to it and hear the building playing," Florance says. The neighborhood, the communities of Fairlawn, Twining and Greenway, wanted it to be flexible so it can also serve as an auditorium for rock, basketball, tennis and what have you. There's also a tot lot, shuffleboard and horseshoe pits. The pavilion cost about $1.4 million with another $500,000 for the landscaping.
Florance likes to think the pavilion recalls "the classical Washington temple in a green setting." In any case, the laminated wood truss roof is held up by pre-cast concrete pillars - hollow because the subsoil is a bit soggy and that reduces the weight. The ticket booths and the administration office are made of a semi-glazed silo tile, a good choice because it discourages graffiti and cleans easily.
The Merritt School, with David Condon as partner-in-charge, is an attempt to give some discipline to the sometimes wild "open plan" school. The school steps down the hill, with "learning centers" separated from each other on four distinct levels. The students have vistas through the building, from one center to the next. And a good thing, too, because the building is essentially windowless because of the threat of vandalism. Most of the light comes from the skylights. What windows there are, are of plexiglas.
It is a sad commentary that children apparently can no longer look out a window and daydream because windows have become targets. The building's concrete outside has, undeniably, a sturdy, not to say stern and foreboding, look to it, as though it would brook no nonsense. It's a shame the D.C. School Board couldn't have found just a bit more money to commission a good-size sculpture for one of those vast plain walls, or perhaps even a painting in the Swiss manner, or a mosiac in the Italian mode. Unornamented concrete, no matter how pure and beautiful to begin with, attracts unprofessional decoration or desecration.
Color and light give the school's interior a softer and pleasanter look. There's a bright red carpet all the way through, hanging plants and the fun of the different levels. The school came within its $3.8-million budget.
The Pepco substation, also by Condon, really is two towers: A five-story concrete, poured-in-place structure shelters the switches and a corteen and plexiglas "shoji screen" without a top hides the equipment that does not need weather protection. It is certainly good to see such a structure given serious architectural study. Such necessary facilities too often end as blights.
The Conant house, discussed at an earlier date in this column, drew a great deal of interest from the jury. One commented on its cubistic structure, another on the way it appears to slide rather than step down its hill site. The 4,000-square-foot house has large, dramatic, soaring public spaces, divided (like the Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon school) by the change in levels and screening elements such as a fireplace.
In any case, these buildings (except for the house, whose owners would like a little peace and quiet) are worth your time and a stare. And then you can make up your own mind if they are worthy of the city.