In a city and era where too many architects are still on large-scale, modernist ego trips, David M. Schwarz stands out. Not that one of Washington's brightest young architectural lights (he just turned 35 and will be feted tonight by family and friends at the Kennedy-Warren Ballroom) does not have an ego, but he is able to sublimate it to create modest, nonpolemical architecture. His work is a collection of gracious buildings whose primary characteristic is that they fit in rather than stand apart, making them welcome additions to their neighborhoods.
Schwarz believes buildings must be "appropriate" to their time and place. His most noteworthy efforts -- 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW (the building with the clock tower just north of Dupont Circle) and 1818 N St. NW (far and away the best example in Washington of the growing practice of saving an old facade and adding a new building behind it) -- have won wide praise for respecting rather than imitating the past.
Schwarz's latest may be his best yet. The location of the Griffin -- a condominium at the corner of K and 26th streets NW, at the Foggy Bottom end of the Whitehurst Freeway -- assures it prominent visual status. But instead of putting up an eye-grabbing architectural tour de force, Schwarz has created a building of the utmost common sense that seems ideally suited to its site. The north facade maintains the relatively high-rise (nine stories) streetscape permitted on K Street, but the western facade steps down segmentally to the town house scale of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood along 26th Street.
There is much more to this building than simple massing and a lack of architectural pyrotechnics, however. The design harks back to days gone by when a building had a bottom, middle and top. Schwarz accomplished this by subtly varying the brick color and mortar -- red at the top and bottom and brown in the middle -- and wrapping the facade with a pair of cream-colored bands of overscaled molding that add texture. The building is also heavily articulated with a series of flat and semioctagonal bays (which become copper-roofed turrets) and recessed balconies. The building's notched corner at 26th and K demonstrates Schwarz's superior understanding of form, giving a sense of solidity and depth to the facade while adding to its rhythm.
But all this depth on the facade as well as the allusions to earlier architecture -- columned entry, sandstone lintels, attic oculi -- belies that the Griffin is a modern building, says Schwarz. Behind the punched-out wall of the western front is a simple, glass curtain wall. And the windows throughout are single sheets of glass, not double-hung sash. Yet, the Griffin is obviously not an office building, but a residential one. If there is a single element that is less successful, it is the penthouse containing the elevator machinery. On an angle and painted white to help make it disappear, this necessity nevertheless appears quite prominent, and its jarring boxiness contrasts sharply with the building's varied and visually interesting forms.
Schwarz saw the project as three buildings. The largest piece is 90 feet high and is similar, says the architect, to a New York City apartment building. The smallest is a 50-foot-high, typically Washingtonian, townhouse. The building in between, at 70 feet, serves as a link and has a curved roof profile to differentiate it from the triangular pediments of the others.
The plan is a simple L-shape, but Schwarz arranged the units along K Street to take advantage of long vistas by extending the sides of the semioctagonal bays. The effect on the interior is to shape the view toward the distance into Georgetown, rather than just across the street. Inside units face a courtyard walled in white stucco, a Schwarz design trademark for the backs of his buildings. Glazed bays and balconies provide some visual interest on the otherwise stark walls. The building was planned with 102 units ranging in size from studios to two-bedrooms with two baths and designed so that an owner could combine two or more apartments. That has been done; there are now 83 units, including two spectacular penthouses.
Developer Eddie Lenkin, whose father and grandfather have been building apartments in the Washington area since the 1930s, had worked with Schwarz on 1818 N St. and admired the way the architect integrated old and new elements, demonstrating a sensitivity to the neighborhood. And Lenkin was particularly interested in the Griffin's site, as he lives just down the block. He had seen that the property, which once housed a historic pottery, was ripe for development and knew that the only way he could have a say in how it looked was to do it himself.
Personal interest aside, however, Lenkin sought a somewhat traditional design because he thought it would help the building sell. His primary concern was what he called "curb appeal."
"How will the building look from the street," he asked, "from the pedestrian's point of view? After all, it is from the sidewalk that most neighborhood residents will see it." Because Lenkin believed the site to be one of the city's best, vistas across Georgetown to Key Bridge sunsets were also important to him. And indeed, the Griffin is most assuredly a case where the view is as good from the inside out as from the outside in.
The building -- for which Lenkin has commissioned a 3 1/2-foot-square cast bronze griffin by Washington sculptor John Dreyfuss, to be placed over the front door -- looks like the kind that used to grace American cities until some 50 years ago, when the rise of modern architecture began to proscribe complex roofscapes and decorative elements. Under Schwarz's deft hand, that old style has been revived. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to his work is a question: The staff reports more than one visitor to the sales center has asked, "Is this building a renovation?"