Architects -- the good ones, anyway -- continue to struggle with the challenge of designing new buildings that amicably coexist with the old streets and physical fabric of Georgetown. Failures, all too often big failures, still outnumber successes, but a couple of young design firms have recently added some spice to the still-brewing argument.
The spiciest of the new projects is the Madison National Bank building designed by Martin & Jones for the northeast corner of 29th and M streets NW, a building that struck one member of the Georgetown Board of the Commission of Fine Arts as "silly." At the same meeting of the commission the design moved member Kevin Roche, the noted architect whose term has since expired, to exclaim: "I think it's terrific, I think you finally solved the problem of building in Georgetown."
Another recently completed project is a set of eight elegant town houses on the 3200 block of Volta Place developed and designed around the old 7th Police Precinct station house by architect Robert Bell. The projects share an intention to fit in by quoting appropriate historical styles without copying them obsequiously, but there are important differences. Bell's project, even at its freehand best, adopts a federal-period style and sticks to it. The Martin & Jones building is a high-voltage attempt to resolve numerous stylistic conflicts.
In part, the extra richness and complexity of the Martin & Jones building is a response to the vigorous clash of styles and periods that characterize the commercial M Street strip. In part, it is due to a complicated program that called for commercial use in the basement and ground floor, offices on the second floor and residences at the top and rear.
And in part the Martin & Jones building design is a self-conscious attempt to speak several languages at the same time, to be simultaneously contemporary and conventional, modern and traditional. It is almost too much to do in a single structure, or at least the new language has not yet been perfected. Nonetheless the result is a fascinating four-sided composition.
The main facade, facing M Street, picks up the stylized commercial classicism of the adjacent Biograph Theater with a cleanly theatrical column and entablature; at the top, the building mimics federal-period Georgetown with dormers of exaggerated scale; a double row of slightly-too-large (and non-opening) "federal" windows sweeps to the corner across flat brick courses.
The eastern silhouette, with its massive centered chimney, picks up the 18th-century-style side facade of a smaller bank building across 29th Street, itself designed by Edmund W. Dreyfuss & Associates in 1974 to echo the genuine 18th-century side of the Thomas Sim Lee house one block to the west. Along 29th Street the building angles down to its two-story Italianate residential neighbors, reflecting them with a bracketed cornice that sticks neatly in the air.
This gesture, obviously with no other reason for being than to mime the nearby architectural style, is one of the many things the Georgetown architect must have considered "silly," and it is silly, a little bit. But the contrivance is intentional, the piece fits into the overall facade composition, and as a detail it speaks clearly to architect and layman alike. Perhaps the corner of M and 29th is not the place to be too concerned about a little intelligible fun.
It is the vigor of the building in mass and plane that recommends it to our attention, reflecting the intentions of the architects and their skill in executing them even though they stumble here and there. The mistakes both minor and major mostly concern entrances -- quotidian steel doors, tucked unattractively away, and fat tubular railings that just look awful, and a giant fan window supported by small stone columns on the M Street facade that jars the overall composition and confuses us about where the real entrance is. (The original design was lean and contemporary in feel though by no means 100 percent better. In any case, it was rejected by the Fine Arts Commission.)
Up on Volta Place, Robert Bell was dealing with somewhat different problems . . . simpler ones, by and large. His main architectural challenge was to restore the police station house, a three-story Victorian brick structure, and then to design a set of houses that would complement it as well as the rest of the street, which consists mainly of low 19th-century buildings. His solution is surprising. For the row of new houses attached to the station house, he skipped back a century for an ensemble that he aptly refers to as "an ode to the 18th century."
The problem is the execution, not the idea -- residential Georgetown is the perfect place for such an ode. But the street facades of Bell's row of federal-style houses come close to the old, dispirited practice of literal copying: There's hardly enough difference there to make a difference. Dormers, sash windows with stone lintels, a single Palladian balcony window and narrow doors are boringly replica-like. And the arched garage entrances, even if necessary, are bothersome. (The stonework details, however, are first-rate. They were designed and handcrafted by Ray Kaskey, an architect/sculptor in Bell's office.)
Happily, the design picks up at either end. Bell won his argument with the Fine Arts Commission to terminate the row on the west with an unorthodox high chimney flush with the facade, a graceful and appropriate exclamation point. On the east Bell bridged the narrow space between the station house and a two-story Italianate home with a comely brick archway that leads back and down to the rear courtyard of the project, where his design sings.
This mews, as he calls it, is a graceful and enchanting space defined by high brick walls beautifully punctuated by airy, big circular windows, by arches of cunningly different sizes and by a Palladian balcony window that is as spirited as the one on Volta Place is squinched. In this space, unfortunately for us a private one, Bell is interpreting a historical style with a freedom that makes something new out of something old.
Neither of these projects is intrusive. Each firm in its way pays careful attention to the architectural basics: the specific conditions of site, scale and materials, and different sets of functional demands. Each in its way demonstrates a desire to reuse the architectural conventions of the past. But if Bell's ode at its best is more alluring, the Martin & Jones building, with all of its dissonant exaggerations, has more to teach us in the long run.