Sometime early next year there will be a new entry in the city's second-favorite architectural game, Save a Fac,ade. (No matter what some say about the preservation law, Washington's favorite design entertainment remains Tear It Down.) The new building, an office structure massed behind a historic property at 1911 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, promises to define the issues of this competition more succinctly than ever before.
Fac,adism, as it is often called, gets a bad rap from all directions. Nobody -- not preservationists, not developers, not architects -- really likes half the cookies when the whole jar might be had. Nonetheless, fac,ade preservation is a solid contribution to the limited list of design alternatives in a tightly packed city such as Washington. When done with care it is a way of letting the city grow without losing important connections to its past, and almost always it leads to more responsive, responsible architecture.
The case at hand forcefully tests that presumption. Combining demolition, restoration, reconstruction and new construction, the design is ingenious and inherently theatrical: The new ensemble will read like a billboard advertising the 1980s at the top and the 1790s at the bottom.
The centerpiece of the project is important because of its history and because it is one of only four privately built 18th-century buildings (or groups) still standing in the city outside of Georgetown. Surprisingly, despite these credentials, the building was not designated as a historic landmark until the summer of 1984, well after the site had been acquired for development and a design prepared. Peter Vercelli, architect of the new project, was the original savior of the old fac,ade, having on his own persuaded the developer to preserve it. "I knew nothing about the history of the building," Vercelli said, "but it seemed to represent the original cornice line along Pennsylvania Avenue."
Exactly so. The three-story building at 1911 Pennsylvania will be familiar to many as Marrocco's Sorrento Room, an Italian restaurant whose '50s-modern sign and fake flagstone exterior at ground floor still catch the eye even though the restaurant moved two years ago. The building and its neighbors west and east -- a four-story 1898 brick structure and a radically altered 18th-century building, respectively -- are squeezed between two big and blandly inconsequential contemporary office buildings. The little buildings definitely have that bedraggled look of objects about to be thrown away.
Who would guess that from these second- and third-floor windows, for more than half a century after the frame structures were built, senators, representatives and even a president (James Madison in 1815) would regard the dusty, broad stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue? The building is the sole surviving fragment of a once-famous row of boarding houses -- called the Seven Buildings (though there were only six in the row) to distinguish them from the Six Buildings a block to the west -- constructed in 1796.
These were some of the first private buildings to go up in the District of Columbia after the public sale of lots began in 1792 to finance the governance of the new city. The lots were among the more than 7,000 purchased by a vast speculative syndicate that included Robert Morris, the Philadelphia patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution -- one of only two men to sign all three -- whose financial skills provided the money Gen. Washington needed for the decisive Yorktown campaign during the Revolutionary War. (His epitaph in encyclopedias usually reads, "financier of the American Revolution.") The buildings contributed to his downfall, too. Unbelievably undercapitalized and overextended, the syndicate went broke in 1797, and Morris, who died in 1806, spent the years 1798 to 1801 in debtors' prison.
Of course it would be nice to save such a relic in its entirety, but the question here, as in many such cases, is who would pay? A building at 2017 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, of similar vintage (1805) and more distinguished architecturally, was purchased in 1917 by the Arts Club of Washington and is still used by the club. But there is no such angel waiting in the wings to pay 1980s downtown prices for 1911 Pennsylvania.
"The fac,ade and the interior spaces looking out over the avenue, accurately reconstructed, seemed to me to comprise the historic essence of the building," said Vercelli. In other words, from the very beginning he did not believe that saving the entire building was important. While this is questionable, total preservation was impossible given the circumstances, which included a high-density commercial zoning envelope, a narrow lot and strict fire, construction and parking regulations.
Vercelli proposes to treat each of the existing buildings differently: The 1898 building at 1913 Pennsylvania will be demolished, 1911 Pennsylvania will be fully restored, and 1909 Pennsylvania will be cut down to its original size and rebuilt in its 1796 image. The vacancy thus created on the west will be used as an entrance to the nine-story office building behind the old structures. The plan is ingenious on the inside, in the way parking spaces were squeezed in, in the clear circulation patterns and, most important, in the intimate, four-story sky-lit atrium behind the two older buildings.
Vercelli's approach to the problem of relating the fac,ades was to contrast the new and old pieces in materials and style, instead of imitating the old styles in the design of the new structure (as Hartman-Cox did with major parts of the Sumner School project, under construction in the 1600 block of M Street NW), or obliquely reflecting the old styles (as David Schwarz did at the corner of 19th and N streets NW).
This is basically an abstract, Modernist way of dealing with the context issue, similar in theory to John Carl Warnecke's indelicate, stage-set-like design for the building behind Red Lion Row in the 2000 block of I Street NW. It is the least sympathetic of the design approaches, but Vercelli has done it well in the past in his late-1970s design for the Old Flour Mill Project in Georgetown, and, given the context of two bad modern office structures flanking the new project, it probably is the better way to go at 1911 Pennsylvania.
The design proposes that the nine-story concrete and glass ribbon-window office building step back at fourth-floor level, to give the old buildings some breathing room, and then gradually step forward in the upper floors until it meets the plane of the adjoining office structures at the top. (The overhangs will, not incidentally, provide much needed summer shade for the south-facing building.) Thus the new structure will speak to the adjacent buildings in their own language and will hide their exposed side fac,ades -- both pluses.
But it really is a dicey idea to frame the smaller, older structures with a larger, newer one that is, in itself, so emphatic a presence on the avenue, and Vercelli has yet to design the details of the ribbon windows, the concrete spans and the entrance way. He may indeed make this composition as pretty as a picture, and for that we will all be in his debt. But however it works out, his design, by its very nature, is sure to raise a question of importance to the rest of downtown: How many more building-billboards do we want?