One gets to know a building in stages, frequently from the bottom up. My first impressions of the Dupont Circle Building, for instance, were focused upon its ground floor mainly because of the presence there of two businesses -- the Discount Book Store, which was much more than its name implied, and the Dupont Theater, a movie house with personality. These were the psychological centerpieces (actually located a bit off center) of a lively, somewhat unkempt row of small shops facing Connecticut Avenue.
Gradually, over the years, I began to appreciate the building as a whole. I'd glimpse the deceptive sliver with which it faces Dupont Circle, say, or stop to examine a bit of ornamentation or to admire the fine rhythm of the narrow stone pilasters, metal spandrels and basic bricks of its side fac ades. On one occasion, visiting an office on an upper story of a building across the street, I found myself looking more or less head-on at the pedimented service tower on its roof -- Michael Graves, sort of, half a century before Michael Graves.
What an odd, big, fine building this is, and what a pleasure to report that it's been given a sympathetic restoration under the direction of a local firm, Oldham & Seltz. Its original designer was Mihran Mesrobian, a greatly underheralded Washington architect in the years between the world wars.
Mesrobian gave his client every square foot of space allowed by zoning laws -- in 1931, when it was completed, it must have seemed an apparition in its fashionable, low-rise, residential neighborhood -- but he did so with likable aplomb. His Dupont Circle Building is one of those urbane pieces that in recent years have helped us to rediscover some of the lost secrets of civility in city architecture.
Mesrobian's chief claim to local fame is that in the KL,0,0 IL,10.9P mid- 1920s he became principal architect to Harry Wardman, the great Washington builder. His designs for Wardman include some of the finest extant pieces from the period -- the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel (1926), the Hay-Adams Hotel (1927) and the Wardman Tower (1928). For other clients, after ,1 Wardman's bankruptcy, he designed the wonderful Sedgwick Gardens apartments (1932) and the Dupont Circle Building, which was a hotel until its slapdash conversion to office use in the 1960s.
Born in Turkey of Armenian parents, Mesrobian (1889-1975) was educated at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Istanbul. He served in the Turkish army and as palace architect to the sultan before increasing Turkish hostility to Armenians caused him to emigrate in 1921. (These facts were gleaned from an article published a few years ago in the now-defunct review Design Action, written by art historian Caroline Mesrobian Hickman, the architect's granddaughter.)
Mesrobian's Beaux-Arts training is evident in each of the above-mentioned buildings. He designed according to a formula -- every building must have a base, middle and top, and its fac ades given appropriate texture, depth and ornamental details -- and he was able to manipulate this system with resourcefulness and ill. In the Dupont Circle Building we see him in transition from his rather free classical adaptations of the 1920s to flatter surfaces and more stylized ornament, a combination of Beaux-Arts classicism and art deco sensibility altogether characteristic of what passed for progressive architecture in Washington at the time.
There were no brilliant flights of fancy here such as the Chrysler Building in New York, nor any streamlined masterpieces such as the PSFS yscraper in Philadelphia. But a quality many of Washington's buildings of the period share is genuine commodiousness. One wouldn't cross an ocean to see any one of them, but as a set of variations on a theme they add significantly to Washington's image as a relaxed, livable city, an image greatly tarnished in the tide of low-grade, real-estate modern architecture in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Dupont Circle Building, in fact, played a footnote role in the deflection of modern architecture here. The Euram Building, which went up directly across 19th Street in 1970, was one of the notable exceptions to the dreary rule of large-scale modern architecture here -- it was bold, expressive, sculptural, abstract, and yet it somehow seemed at home with its staid, traditional neighbor. It seemed plain as day that its then young, then avant-garde architects, George Hartman and Warren Cox, had made it so by sheathing their structure in red bricks in direct homage to the Dupont Circle Building.
Ironically, this wasn't the case; these architects had conceived the brute-force Euram, their first major commercial commission, entirely in concrete, as Le Corbusier or Paul Rudolph (one of Cox's mentors at Yale) would have done. Having switched to brick simply because it was less expensive, they discovered that they liked the change, liked the way it blended with its neighbor and reflected a traditional Washington theme. The gradual evolution of the Hartman-Cox firm from modernism to abstract contextualism to today's (occasional) outright revivalism can be dated, in some measure, from this perception.
But this is to stray from the issue of the Oldham & Seltz restoration, not much of an issue, since in most respects it's a simple, first-rate job. Two quibbles: the new lobby and the open space fronting on Dupont Circle. The lobby is an arid walk-through, a travesty of its former self (it was packed with little shops), and, besides that, has been given a meekly classical look thoroughly out of sync with the eclectic exterior. The open space, cleared in the mid-'70s to make way for a Metro station exit, could be a nice place to sit, schmooze, eat, people-watch. But it is now blocked off by an ill-placed bicycle rack -- Metro's remediable mistake.
Mainly, though, the architects just patched and polished Mesrobian's work, which is the way it should be. True, the old building has lost some funky charm, but there's lots of life left in it. The movies, by the way, will be returning: The Pedas brothers (of the Circle Theatres chain) have leased space there. The bookstore, now Olsson's, has relocated down the street. In the beginning of its second 50-year cycle, the Dupont Circle Building is looking good again top, middle and bottom.