To developer Kenneth A. Golding small is not only beautiful, but makes sound economic sense. Aiming to carve out a niche developing small office buildings, Golding and his two partners in Stanton Development Co. have just completed their first new building -- a two-story (plus basement) structure at 317 Massachusetts Ave. NE, designed by relative newcomer Amy Weinstein.
It is, in a word, charming. That's a term rarely used to describe a speculative office building, but this is no ordinary developer-architect team content with continuing the status quo.
Golding -- who inherited his interest in quality architecture from his father, also a developer -- decided a few years ago that in the small office building market there was a void to fill. He soon found out, however, that such buildings -- despite being just what many neighborhood residents want -- are difficult to develop.
Small buildings require nearly the same effort to develop as larger ones, without the benefit of economies of scale. Regardless of the size of the project, for example, developers still must appear before countless hearings with neighborhood and city groups and commissions. Similarly, says Golding, "it's no less easy" securing permanent financial backing for a building of 11,000 square feet -- the size of the 317 Massachusetts Ave. NE project -- than it is for one of 500,000 square feet.
In terms of design, the building core or lobby takes up a greater percentage of the space in a small building than in a larger one, thus reducing the amount of leasable space. Also, there generally are no uniform floors, unlike a high-rise building in which all the floors are the same.
In addition, Golding says, it is difficult to find sites in historic neighborhoods such as Georgetown or Capitol Hill. And when developers do, they must contend with the District's tough preservation ordinances, which make demolition quite difficult. (In this case, all that stood on the Stanton project site in the Capitol Hill Historic District was a decrepit animal hospital; members of the preservation review board apparently agreed the building was a dog, for they permitted its demise.)
And Golding discovered yet another drawback as he set out to lease the building: inexpensive competition. Capitol Hill is rampant with residential properties being used illegally for commercial purposes by lobbyists and others. But even with the cards stacked against them, the developers believed that their style of creativity might pay.
Golding is a member of a chamber music group -- he is an accomplished flutist -- and therein lies a tale. His first violinist is architect Amy Weinstein, who once worked in Philadelphia for post-modern architecture's guru, Robert Venturi. Golding trusted Weinstein's musical faculty, and decided to bet on her design skill as well.
Weinstein has been in private practice for only 3 1/2 years, and this is her first major nonresidential job. Where to turn for ideas? First, she looked to the Stanton Park neighborhood of Victorian row houses; the four-part, bay-window massing that maintains the building edge along the street derives from this context. The developers eschewed the opportunity to build two additional stories of apartments as permitted by the zoning, believing that neighborhood objections might delay the project and that such an expanded program would complicate the simple building.
Like many architects, Weinstein refers to the past for design inspiration. She relishes especially the work of Frank Furness, a late 19th-century Philadelphia architect who combined the picturesque eclecticism of Victorian design with the then-developing technology of steel construction. And she saw similarities in her building, a steel-frame box that needed decoration.
"The Victorians celebrated their tops, where buildings met the sky," says Weinstein, and in a variation on that theme, she designed a series of free-standing pediments across the front. Each is pierced by a semicircular opening that reveals a fully glazed bay window with operable sash and chamfered glass top for extra light. The visual effect is that of a series of metal-and-glass boxes behind the building's brick skin, which appears to be applique'd. "The building alludes to Victorian themes," notes the architect, "but it is only a fac,ade."
Weinstein is also fascinated with pattern, something she learned -- through Venturi -- from Furness, who covered many of his buildings inside and out with a variety of rich, decorative details. In keeping with post-modernism's stripped-down approach, black brick is set flush in the red-brick facade to create accents in patterns that recall the heavy corbeling on neighboring structures. There are other Furnessian touches, such as the short, squat assemblages of columns that hold up the massive entry arch on the first floor as well as the smaller opening at ground level (designed to permit a separate entrance for a restaurant, should that use be desired).
The stylish lobby makes even greater use of patterning, with its tiled floor, stenciled ceiling and painted walls with chair rail. The Victorian-inspired palette is derived from the stencil colors and ranges from a variety of mauves to sage green and terra cotta. Overhead, within the vault of the ceiling, a standard bronze tubular light fixture is made distinctly nonstandard by the addition of a series of stylized brackets based on a Victorian motif. A pair of abstracted, oak newel posts, stepped so that one acts wittily as a column, draw attention away from the service hall and to the stair. This entry space may be small, yet it is filled with visual delights.
Weinstein's creation, Golding believes, is an ideal alternative to the facelessness of K Street. "We produced a unique product," the developer says, "not just a repetitious fac,ade." He believes commercial renters are becoming more sophisticated aesthetically, and are seeking out quality architecture to help create a distinctive image.
"Tenants don't want boxes anymore," Golding says, and if he's right, Amy Weinstein and Stanton Development should prosper. Carleton Knight III is a Washington architectural writer. Benjamin Forgey is on leave.