Most of us do not, with good reason, think of Washington as an Art Deco environment. But most of us, after perusing "Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation's Capital," a book just published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, will be forced to adjust our image of the city just enough to give Deco D.C. its due.
Written by architect Hans Wirz and historian Richard Striner, the book is a genuine contribution to the architectural history of the city and its suburbs. In addition to an excellent essay and an informative text, it contains an appendix listing 404 buildings or building clusters (with their dates, architects and developers) in the metropolitan area that, at the very least, contain certain elements of the Art Deco style.
Many of these buildings are indeed modest examples of the style that for nearly two decades defined the image of popular contemporary architecture in cities and towns across the United States. Even so the number is impressive, as is the fact that only 25 of the structures on the list have, as yet, been demolished.
Renewed interest in and admiration for the Art Deco style, growing nationally since the late 1960s, came rather late to Washington. The Art Deco Society of Washington (headed, incidentally, by Striner) was not formed until 1982, three years after the Miami Design Preservation League succeeded in gaining a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for one square mile of Miami Beach, the first Art Deco historic district (and for that matter, the first 20th-century district) in the United States.
The fact that this delayed revival parallels the late arrival of the style in the capital city is not, I think, a coincidence. It has to do with the built-in conservatism of Washington architecture, with the image and the reality of Washington as a city of classical buildings arranged upon a Baroque classical plan, and with the tension between the federal city and the local city that is as old as the plan itself.
Just as the building scene here in the late 1920s through much of the 1930s was dominated, in the public imagination, by the construction of the classic revival buildings of the Federal Triangle, so the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have been dominated by plans to improve the Mall and revive the monumental stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the Treasury Building.
At the same time, the preservation movement here was too preoccupied with saving evidence of the 19th-century city -- still shrinking and still threatened by office construction in both the "old" and "new" segments of the downtown -- to pay much attention to the fate of buildings that were hardly more than 40 years old. Most of Washington's Art Deco buildings were built on the east-west, north-south street grid or far from the city's monumental core rather than along the close-in diagonal boulevards. They were, in other words, quintessential architectural expressions of the local city, and they were, until recently, left to fend for themselves.
No longer. The Wirz-Striner book is both a stimulus and a resource for a healthy reevaluation of this not-so-distant episode in our architectural past. Art Deco Washington is scattered -- there are no groupings here to rival those in New York, Miami Beach, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Kansas City and other places where the style gained an earlier, and firmer, foothold -- and in general it took more muted forms here than elsewhere. But once Deco did arrive in Washington, architects (mostly local) made up for the lost time.
Despite being built within five years of each other, two of the city's better, and better-known, examples of Art Deco architecture -- the Kennedy-Warren apartment building at 3133 Connecticut Ave. NW and the Hecht Co. Warehouse at 1401 New York Ave. NE -- sum up the extremes of the style as defined by historian David Gebhard. The Kennedy-Warren, designed by Joseph Younger and completed in 1932, is a vivid and fully mature expression of the jazzy, vertical, highly ornamented kind of Deco that prevailed in the 1920s. By contrast, the Hecht Co. Warehouse, designed by Abbot, Merkt & Co. and completed in 1937, is a striking manifestation of the sleek, streamlined version that took hold in the 1930s.
Wirz and Striner give full credit to the handful of genuine, gee-whiz exemplars of Deco in the area. Besides the above-mentioned pair, the list includes the Sedgwick Garden Apartments at 3726 Connecticut Ave. NW (Mihran Mesrobian, architect, 1932); the Majestic apartments at 3200 16th St. NW (Alvin Aubinoe and Harry L. Edwards, 1937); the Trans-Lux Theater downtown, demolished in 1975 (Thomas Lamb, 1936); the Greyhound Bus Terminal at 1110 New York Ave. NW, a terrific piece of Deco streamlining built in 1940 (Wischmeyer, Arrasmith and Elswick, architects) and now shamefully hidden under a hideous mid-'70s mask; and the lobby of the Roger Smith Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, demolished in 1975 along with the older building of which it was the most distinguished part (lobby designed by Laurance Emmons, 1939).
But the great value of the book is its breadth: It is full of pleasant surprises. The authors do not hesitate to cast praise upon humble waters, so that roadside attractions such as the Little Taverns that happily dot the regional map, or singular survivors such as the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring and Whitlow's Restaurant downtown, are appreciated in just measure.
Deco in Washington often was a piecemeal affair, a matter of not much more than giving an entranceway or a lobby some design juice, and the book uncovers numerous obscure, but quite wonderful, details. My favorites in this line include the entrance to the garden apartments at 5746 Colorado Ave. NW (designed by George T. Santmyers in 1938); the streamlined nautical lobby in the otherwise International-style apartment building at 2929 Connecticut Ave. NW (by Joseph Abel, 1936); and, above all, the tremendous polychrome concrete panels above the entrance to the Walker Building, 734 15th St. NW (by Porter and Lockie, 1937). John Joseph Earley, a local manufacturer who supplied these innovative panels for the Walker and many other Washington buildings, and who even did a few polychrome concrete houses in Silver Spring and elsewhere, is the book's major rediscovery.
Washington would not be Washington if Art Deco here had not taken on important aspects of classical architecture (or vice versa). Although this union was not always a happy one -- the stripped classicism of the Roosevelt years being perhaps the tradition's least magnificent moment -- Deco decorators were able to add wondrous touches to some very upright buildings, as any visitor to the Justice Department building can attest.
There are a few fine structures of the period -- notably Paul Cret's 1932 Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill and the Greenbelt Center Elementary School in Prince George's County (1936, Ellington and Wadsworth, architects) -- that somehow manage to combine classical rectitude, New Deal idealism and Deco exuberance in approximately equal measure. "Greco-Deco," a phrase invented by Smithsonian historian James Goode, catches the spirit of these improbable buildings.
Even during its heyday, Art Deco was looked down upon, and quite vituperatively so, by leading modernist architects and theorists as an inherently compromised, low-brow form of architectural expression: commercial, ornamental, superficial. This attitude prevailed in the postwar years with the widespread triumph of the International style, and it remains strong today. A Silver Spring resident, responding to a column I wrote praising the architectural and urbanistic qualities of the proposed Art Deco historic district there, found the buildings "seedy-looking," "boring," "simplistic," "tiresomely geometric" and "clearly dated."
Ironically, the qualities of the style despised by the modernists are just the ones that many contemporary architects have found so attractive in recent years -- its color, integrated ornament, up-to-the-minute materials, jazzy massing and general likability. Two outstanding local examples of new buildings infused with the Deco spirit are the office building at 4215 Connecticut Ave. NW (designed by Hartman/Cox Architects), and the Penn Theatre project (designed by David Schwarz Architectural Services) under construction on the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
The Art Deco sensibility has proven to be an important key with which designers can unlock the long-forgotten secret of how to make architecture modern and appealing at the same time. This being so, I cannot help but close with a plea to the members of the Montgomery County Planning Board who, on Monday evening, will be considering the worthiness of the Deco district in Silver Spring.
That extraordinarily coherent collection of buildings at the important intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue is indeed worthy, in historical terms. More than that, beneath the seedy-looking exteriors are gems waiting to sparkle, buildings that can provide the crucial stylistic link between Silver Spring's low-rise past and its high-rise future. Once again, I will quote John Westbrook, chief of urban design for the planning board: "Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it can't be done. Anything is possible if you have the vision."