Your friendly Federal Home Loan Bank Board is about to invite you in for a cool summer drink by its reflecting pool and some ice skating in winter.
The board's new headquarters at the corner of 17th and G streets, across from the Executive Office Building, is the first new public building in America to contribute to the public happiness.
Thus distinction deserves a more distinguihed architectural attire, but if we consider the pompous ugliness we might have to get from gotten from the feds (and continue to get from speculative office builders) we have reason to be grateful. The building's basic form and function are attractively conceived. Only the facade suffers from with-it-itis, a chronic and apparently incurable architectural disease.
The Bank Board and the General Service Administration, which put up the building, weren't always that friendly. At the price of two out of three charming, historic buildings, we, the people, wrested the pool, the restaurants, the shops, the civility, the friendliness out of the them. The price was the Nicholas cap and a little Italianate bank which stood on that site. The GSA bulldozed them one Sunday morning of the March 1974, in apparent violation of the Historic Preservation Act and in the middle of formal negotiations about the fate of the landmarks.
The Bank Board must have felt badly about SA's high-handedness. It got a a bad image and Congress was looking on. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the Bank man in charge, George S. Oram Jr., negotiated with "Don't Tear It Down," an agile and forceful citizen's preservation group, and the city got an ice skating rink in way of amends. It is these small favors, in the end, that make the difference between a dull city and a livable city.
The Bank Board's concession, furthermore, helped to pass an act of Congress that requires GSA to help preserve wormy old buildings and permits it to include stores, restaurants or whatever seems indicated to make federal buildings more lively. The multiple se act, in turn, allows the present SA adminstrator, Jay Solomon, to follow his natural inclinations for art and ambiance in our cityscape.
The historic building on the site that was saved thanks to citizens protests is the Winder Building. It was built in 1847 with endearing simplicity and has now been restored, thank heaven, and has been made part of the Bank Board complex.
Now the saved building saves its saviours from visual fiasco. A whole block - from A Street to F Street - of the new building's busy concoction of glass, concrete limestone blocks and concrete sewer pipe columns would be hard to endure. As it is, we only have a few yards of that jazz, then a pause (an entrance of the Bank Board's inner court) and then the quiet charm of the newly scrubbed and painted Winder building.
The Winder makes you realize what is wrong with the new building.The architect of the complex, Max O. Urbahn Associates of New York, with Jo Stanley, the chief designer, decided that the Bank office should echo the Executive Office Building - an exciting and excible architectural flourish in the grandest manner of Napoleon III. But that, it is now obvious, is an impossible act to follow. The flourish needs a calm response, not an echo. Urban should have sought his inspiration from the Winder.
But calm facades are not "in" this year. It is sewer pipe columns - again and again, on every new building in town.
The courtyard is plaesant and will be even more so in September when the restaurants are to open. There will be a sanck bar, a moderately priced caferia, which will also supply drinks and entertainment at night, and an expensive French restaurant. All three eateries will be managed by Tony Greco, the present owner of the Rive Gauche restaurant in Georgetown.
The ambiance is supplied by the central court and its reflecting pool/skating rink, designed by landscape architect Hideo Sasaki. To keep the ambiance dry and warm in winter, Sasaki has designed a glass 'galleria,' a sort of open greenhouse that will have hanging plants and heat lamps dangling in it.
Nice - but a mystery.
The mystery is why two good design firms, Urbahn and Sasaki, conspired to place this 'galleria" in such a clumsy-klutzy manner. It runs along the entire court-side facade of the Winder Building, as if to hide some embarrassment. It leads from nowhere to nowhere. It looks as though the contractor mistakenly put it in the wrong place.
But cities are full of goods things in the wrong places and when this court, which is to be called "Liberty Plaza," is completed and full of people, it won't matter. The people seems assured by the presence of shops on the ground floor and the fact that the court will connect with a new office building behind the Bank Board, on G and 18th street, on which construction had just started.
Along 17th Street, the public also gets a view of the Bank Board Building's lobby a view through a jungle of plants. Small, almost intimate, the looby is architecturally by far the most successful aspect of the building. It is all done in blond wood and tile, and entirely free of the usual office lobby pomposities.
Less successful are the Bank Board Building's three interior courts - also decked out with plants and blond oak, but too tight and stingy with space to be anything but light wells.
The interior furnishings are flexible, with modular work stations that are still being moved about to make everyone comfortable. A guided tour by adminstrative director Robert J. Gilbert and Phyllis Miller of the public relations office gives the impression that the physical office arrangements, including optional Muxak and directional graphics, are handled with innovative concern for the people who work in the place.
The building also sets new and laudable standards of energy conservation - in part because of the shading fins on the facade, in part because of careful engineering of the air, light and power delivery. But if energy saving were an objective, the architects might have saved themselves the fins if they had used less glass in the first place.
But much as one might argue with the architecture, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board Building is unquestionably an urbanstic success. It provices what its prominent corner needs.