Langston Dwellings should be declared a historic landmark.
Built in 1935 in Northeast Washington, it is one of the first and most attractive public housing projects in the country -- a handsome mememto of a time when architecture was still a social art.
The architect is Hilyard R. Robinson. He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and came to this job inspired by the idealism of the new architecture he had seen on several trips to Europe.
Housing in those days was a cause. All evil -- or, at any rate, most of it -- was considered to germinate in slums. If slums were razed and the slum dwellers given wholesome, pleasant and convenient surroundings, virture would surely repvail. Social reformers and architects need only work together to build ample fresh air, sunshine, recreation, education, community spaces, art and beauty into their housing projects to create not only better architecture but also better people.
I don't know about people. But the architecture young Robinson saw in Holland, Germany and Austria in the 1920s and early '30s was better and more handsome than anything that had been built before -- or since, for that matter -- for working-class families.
Subsidized housing for those who could not afford the market rate for rent was considered a noble experiment. Labor unions, cooperatives, artists, craftsman and some of the best and most open minds of the time eagerly participated. Socialist governments helped. Architectural egos had not yet injected themselves.
In those days, Walter Gropius, Marcel Bruer, Mies van der Rohe and the lesser known, often equally ingenious architects Robinson met on his travels were searching for solutions rather than indefinitive statements. They wanted to create good buildings rather than a new style.
The housing cause spread to the United States in the late 1920s. Its hearld was a small group around Lewis Mumford, writer, social critic and "specialist on things in general," as one of his friends put it. The group included Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Catherine Bauer Wurster.
Stein and Wright pioneered modern community design at Sunnyside Gardens, a settlement for 1,200 moderate-income families on Long Island, and at Radburn, N.J, which was planned for 25,000 people. Bauer Wurster helped make the housing case -- "a decent home in a suitable living environment for every American family" -- the law of the land. The first National Housing Act passed in 1934.
Robinson, by that time, headed the newly expanded architecture program at Howard Univeristy. A graduate of the scholarly M Street High School, he had studied at Philadelphia's School of Industrial Design and served as an artillery officer in France during World War I. He stayed on in France when it was over there and still likes to pluck an occasional French phrase out of the air.
He learned about the ways of the world, he told me, listening to the white folks talk in his grandfather's parlor. (His grandfater was a boot-black ad his shoeshine parlor in the Capitol was frequented by congressmen.)
At Howard, in the early days of the New Deal, Robinson proposed the gvernment build what today would be called a "new town intown," an integrated community for all income groups. "Howard City" was to be a kind of laboratory to test the new housing ideas floating about. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, notably Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, was interested. In the end, however, Howard Universitgy could not get the land and nothing came of it.
Instead Robinson was commissioned to design Langston, on 14 acres of sloping land north of Benning Road between 21st and 24th streets, an area that eve then had several schools, shopping and recreation nearby and affords a magnificent view across the Anacostia River.
Langston Dwellings, also called Langston Terrace, was named in honor of John Mercer Langston, a black congressman of the Reconstruction period, dean of the Howard Law School and a member of the District of Columbia's first board of health.
A frieze, which was also designed by Robinson and which adorns the projects entrance arcade along with a black Madonna, depicts Langston showing Virginia farm laborers the way to industrial jobs in the city.
The project consists of two-, three-and four-story apartment buildings, arranged to frame a court that is open to the view and steps down toward Benning Road. Each of the 308 apartments of various sizes is in a green setting with direct access to playgrounds.
The buildings are of well-laid brick in two colors. A deft touch of concrete trim, the proportions of the brick boxes, the arrangements of the windows and recesses turns the boxes into architecture. Good landscaping and whimisical play sculptures animate it. Robinson's style adds up to a gentle Art Deco without schmaltz. The place has a touching simplicity.
"From the photographs," wrote Lewis Mumford in his "The Sky Line" column in The New Yorker of April 30, 1938, "it looks better than the best modern work in Hamburg or Vienna that I can recall." a model was displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art. When Wilhelmina, queen of the Netherlands, visited Washington in the early 1940s, she was shown the project and praised it.
Hilyard R. Robinson became the most successful black architect in Washington.
Though structurally in suprisingly good condition, Langston is no longer fit to be shown to any visitors, let alone a queen. It is not just the trash and destruction, which could easily be reparied. Management itself vandalized the project.
It replaced Robinson's dark steel window casements with glaring white aluminum, for instance. It substituted some of the ingenious entrance lights, which also illuminate the house numbers, with indifferent, incompatible fixtures.
Yet, neither bureaucratic incomprehension nor 44 years of hard wear have defeated this work. Good workmanship endures.
Langston must be restored and become part of the national memory.