If you hadn't seen it before its recent face lift, you would probably assume that the three-story building at 1217 E St. NW had been lovingly restored to its old self: cleaned, repainted and given a bright new lease on life.
In fact the old-looking polychrome brick-and-stone fac,ade, with its slightly projecting upper-story window bays and its double-entrance arches, is almost all new.
Although architect David Cox of KressCox Associates disclaims any polemical intentions--"We're just glad to get buildings built," he says--the remodeled building can readily be interpreted as a little essay about the esthetics of redevelopment in downtown Washington.
The relatively small scale of the project, unusual in a city thoroughly obsessed with the economics of large-scale development, makes it stand out. And the vivid architectural style--a relatively restrained, somewhat freehand combination of commercial-classical elements--betrays an ironic affection for the way things used to be downtown.
The building is in the middle of an architecturally undistinguished block, overshadowed on the south by the looming rear fac,ade of the new 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. building and surrounded on the north by nondescript older buildings or aggressively banal modern office structures. The only meritorious building in the immediate neighborhood is the Warner Theatre, and even this honorable old goliath has been marred by unsightly commercial panels at ground level.
"We took a look around and said to ourselves, 'This building has a chance to be a very colorful, lively little peanut of interest on a down-at-the-heels street of generally uninteresting architecture,' " Cox recalls. Thus, the size of the building and its style and location combine to make a statement.
One of the great distinguishing marks of Washington is its horizontality, protected by height restrictions adopted after the Cairo Hotel, 160 feet high, broke an unspoken barrier nearly 90 years ago. The unique beauty of this arrangement cannot help but impress the visitor or the returning resident who flies in from Atlanta or Houston or almost any other sizable city with its inevitable core of office towers.
Unquestionably, Washington pays a certain expressive price for this overall lowness, but only in recent decades has this become a major problem. With economic development pressing for maximum density within the height limit, it has become apparent that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
If the overall lowness of the K Street corridor in the eastern section of downtown is, in a way, a good thing, the bulky sameness of K Street architecture (despite horribly vain differences in fac,ade treatments) is a blight that threatens the rest of downtown.
Seen in this context the spirited new old-style fac,ade at 1217 E St. NW is indeed an ironic lesson in scale and textural richness. The building is a beacon that suggests if the remaining blocks of the downtown district are not to go the K Street way the city must take action to preserve the valuable segments of the old city that still remain, and developers and architects must be encouraged, or forced, to modify their big new projects to fit into the older fabric rather than obliterate it.
Many Washingtonians will remember the building at 1217 E St. as the headquarters of Central Charge Service, which existed behind a humdrum 1960s remodeling of an 80-year-old concrete-frame warehouse. In its redesign KressCox Associates obviously took pains to divorce itself from reproduction architecture--the kind of dispirited copyism that often afflicts Georgetown and that the city of Alexandria recently adopted as official policy. The result is a fresh and rather modest combination of old and new elements.
In conventional pre-Modernist fashion the building has a base, middle and top, and in conventional classical fashion the organization of the fac,ade is symmetrical.
The centered split-pediment at the top may distantly refer to the Chippendale top Philip Johnson applied to his AT&T headquarters skyscraper in Manhattan--Cox said he and his associates chose classical elements in part because they were "in the air" two years ago when the building was designed--but it doesn't come off as a self-conscious architectural in-joke. Basically, it is just an unassuming parapet that fits this little building well.
There is something a bit insubstantial about the paired window bays in the middle of the building. Extending but a foot from the main, brick fac,ade, they are tacked on and look it. Even so they add interest, and the overall window pattern of the middle floors, with white-trimmed operating casement windows set below a plain, fixed sash window, makes a really pretty addition to the streetscape. Among the many things architects have not done very well in the past two decades is to create interesting window patterns for commercial structures, so this is especially noteworthy.
Clearly, the biggest design effort was saved for the ground floor of the building, where identical recessed shop windows flank two impressive, high entrance arches. Contrasting colors of brick suggest rusticated stonework, and the arches are handsomely trimmed in granite topped with exaggerated, exclamatory keystones.
The designers obviously could not resist a few tricks. Friezelike segments of stone, for instance, look as if they are about to shatter the shop windows above which they are suspended, and black-painted steel beams with chromium rivets mark a stylistic change in the pleasant, shadowed entrance foyer. Such tricks are also "in the air," but as employed here they don't look terribly out of place. And besides, they serve to remind us that the architects did an exuberant, good job.