Developer Oliver T. Carr. who is suddenly all over town, has applied for a permit to demolish four certified historic landmarks near the White House in order save at least three of them.
The tactic is part of the new urban game - the game of special zoning permits, bonuses, trade-offs and legal gimmicks skillfully maneuvered to win good urban design. City planners, architects, esthetic guardians, historic preservationists and enlightened developers here are beginning to learn how to play it with passion. The Fine Arts Commission, last week, approved Carr's play and the city is sure to play. The stakes are high.
The builidngs at stake are Keith's Theater and the Albee Theater, the National Metropolitan Bank, the sorry remnats of Rhodes Tavern (now a newsstand and fruit store) and the interior of the Old Ebbitt Grill. They all are located on the south side of 15th Street NW, between G and F Streets, facing the magnificent colonnade of Robert Mills' Treasury Building.
Carr acquired the entire block between G and F and 15th and 14th Streets with the exception of Garfinckel's department store on the 14th Street corner, which is to be expanded. He is aware of the momentous importance of this site in the very heart of the capital.
To tell him just what the historic landmark possibilities are, Carr asked his architects, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Washington office and Vlastimil Koubek to present all alternatives for his own decision and for public discussion. Childs came up with seven different possibilities all based on one development concept.
The concept is that the entire block should be treated as a unit in which Garfinckel's offices, retail stores perhaps a small luzury hotel, cinemas, boutiques and restaurants are integrated around an interior mall and terraced galleries or atrium court. There would, of course, be underground parking.
The different possibilities concern the retention of the landmark buildings. One alternative is to demolish them all and start from scratch - the old "urban renewal" nobody wants. Another alternative is to keep and restore them all, which would not only cost a prohibitive $18 million in addition to new construction costs, but also would drag down the esthetics - the fresh, attractive appearance this block and this city need.
There is no problem about the Old Ebbitt Grill one of the most charming rendezvous on the Eastern Seaboard. Paneling, spittoons stuffed walrus head and all it was moved from where the National Press Club now stands to its present location at 1427 F Street NW. Carr will move it again somewhere in his new complex.
Childs' presentation seems to have convinced everyone that the retention and restoration of the Albee Theater building and the Metropolitan Bank building along 15th Street are essential to the whole scheme. The two buildings were designed by different architects, but harmonize so well that many people think they are one building.
Both have distinctive, jubilant yet lyrical Beaux Arts facades done in glazed terra cotta. The two have such and enchanting dialogue going with the Old Treasury, that no one would want to end it. David Childs, an architect as modern as they come, said bluntly that nothing anyone could build today could complement the Treasury as nicely.
The best way to fit these buildings into the ensemble, Childs says, is to bobtail the G Street wing of the L-shaped Albee and to turn the bold portico of the Metropolitan Bank, with its large columns, into a triumphal archway into the interior mall of the project.
That would leave enough of the Albee on G Street to give it a complete corner as you look down G Street. The demolished part would serve as a quarry for ornaments and other terra cotta pieces needed to repair the remaining facade.
The conversion of the bank facade into an arch is a triumph of ingenuity. The interior of the bank contains nothing worth saving.
The combined extra cost of recycling the two Beauz Arts buildings is estimated at $4.6 million.
The contested question is what to do with the Rhodes Tavern on the F Street corner. Built in 1801, it is the oldest remaining commercial structure in downtown Washington. Its interest is not architectural but historic - mainly the fact that in 1814 British Commander Ross and Adm. Cockburn dined at the tavern by the light of the burning White House.
It would cost $1.5 million to reconstruct the building from old drawings. But how would it look in the Beaux Arts setting? What would we use it for?
Childs, although he is merely presenting alternatives for discussion, seems happiest with a uniform cornice line parallel to that of the Treasury - without the Rhodes Tavern. He would replace it with a new building in the line with all the others.
Fine Arts Commission Chairman Carter Brown agrees. Keeping the little house on the corner of F street, he said, "would look like a tooth gap in the smile of 15th Street."
The tooth gap is likely to be debated for a little while - 240 days, to be exact. The overriding question is whether there will be a charming, Beaux Arts smile at all.
I am convinced that Oliver T. Carr, in contrast to the old-style, bulldozer happy developers, sincerely wants to preserve the old buildings in a scheme such as Childs has worked out. Smart developers are beginning to learn that historic charm makes money. The recently restored Quincy Market in Boston, for instance, is a howling success.
But while Carr thinks it is great to preserve old buildings, he also thinks the preservationist ought to pay for it. He is the first developer I know of who has thrown the ball right back into the historic preservation court. "If you want me to keep these buildings," he says, in effect, "pay the additional restoration cost."
In this case, according to Child's estimates, it is a matter of $6.2 million. Carter has hired Betts Abel, the former staff director of "Don't Tear It Down," probably the most effective preservation group in the country, to raise the money from government and private sources. To give a sense of urgency to the fund drive, he has taken out the demolition permit, which, under complicated rules, gives Abel 240 days to come up with the subsidy. Failure at the White House gates would be a real tragedy.
The new game is fascinating. As its rules and techniques are refined by trial and error, we are evolving an entirely new approach to city building and rebuilidng and approach based on cooperation between developers and an interested, alert Community.