The Bond and Southern buildings downtown are looking fine these days. It's enough to make one attempt a little heel-clicking jump when passing, especially considering what might have happened to them -- demolition and replacement by who knows what.
Both were so threatened. The Bond, at 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, led a particularly precarious existence. Its preservation is one of those complicated stories that with a slick script could be turned into a local television equivalent of "L.A. Law" -- "D.C. Deals"? -- but for its alphabet-soup cast and clear-cut happy ending.
The building was boarded shut for years by an owner who found some engineering experts to declare it structurally unsound, which it wasn't and isn't. Volunteer preservationists rushed in, under the let's-fight banner of Don't Tear It Down (now the bloodless-sounding D.C. Preservation League), and with the help of a few lonely souls on the city's historic preservation review agency (then the Joint Committee on Landmarks and now the -- well, never mind) succeeded in having the building declared a historic landmark.
Of course, this was not the end of it -- there were court battles, ownership changes, financial fiascos, meetings and hearings ad infinitum. (The script gets pretty juiceless along about here.) Federal law helped to save the Bond, in the form of preservation tax credits, and so did an inventive architectural plan devised by Shalom Baranes Associates, a firm that has made its reputation devising sensitive ways to save, and add to, downtown buildings.
All of these heroic efforts were made in the cause of what is, admittedly, a very modest architectural effort. Designed in 1901 by Washington architect George S. Cooper, the Bond is a rather hectic wedding cake of classic revival motifs. But compared to its featureless postwar counterparts, it is a treasure.
The Bond has a lot of personality, a sort of highfalutin street-wise charm. It meets its prominent corner just so, rounded off with a little dictionary of windows differently decorated and shaped; its base is heavily articulated, with metal storefront bays (unfortunately no longer allowed by D.C. codes) alternating with segmented-arch store windows; it marches upward with a solid, layered rhythm to an emphatic conclusion in a projecting cornice and a heavy balustrade. As I said, it's a pleasure to see it all cleaned up and useful once more.
The Baranes additions (designed chiefly by Shalom Baranes assisted by Gary Martinez) are basically first-rate -- a good case can be made that with them the building looks better than it ever did. The building was expanded in size both vertically and horizontally, with four floors added to the top and narrow buildings inserted on each flank. The availability of these flanking sites was a key to the design, enabling Baranes literally to frame the original and, by providing extra space, allowing him to fill in its central light-well (and hence to support the new rooftop structure).
These flanking "buildings" are more apparent than real -- on the inside they're part of an integrated whole but they read, from the street, as separate pieces. This is misleading, but engagingly so. Monolithic buildings, the product of ever-larger land assemblies and a desire to meet the demands of large office clients, are the bane of the new downtown streetscape. Baranes fortunately realized that here the street takes precedence over expression of function. Consequently the new slivers, compatibly and elegantly designed, add a welcome break in the visual march of the block. If you can't actually build them, then fake 'em, he seems to be saying, and here it works.
The new top, with its uneasy combination of ribbon windows and a classical colonnade, is more problematic. But in themselves the long rows of paired columns above both the 14th Street and New York Avenue fac ades add a dramatic, conclusive new note to the original building. On the whole I very much like the complexity of this tight, strong composition made up of old and new pieces. In microcosm it tells the story of how the city once again is changing, and it demonstrates how new layers can be added to existing ones to the enhancement of both.
Adding to Daniel Burnham's splendid Southern Building, at 15th and H streets NW, was a simpler design task for Baranes (this time assisted principally by Patrick Burkhart), or at least he made it seem so. Though distinguishable from the original by color (a slightly yellower, brighter brick) and by simplified ornamental details typical of our time, the two floors added above the fanciest cornice in town look as if they belong there -- and for good reason.
More than 2,000 pages of testimony were collected in the squabble over whether to add or not to add, testimony that ultimately documented the original intent of the builders that the building have two more floors. The conclusive evidence was structural: Steel columns and beams sufficient to support the addition were put in place when the building was erected in 1910-11. It matters little, or not at all, that no initial designs for the addition were located -- Baranes did just fine by himself.
The best of the new in this building, however, is the lobby-arcade, a handsome L-shaped sequence of mahogany and glass storefronts, colorful ceiling bays and false skylights, elegant hanging lanterns, patterned marble floors. It's a space that reeks of bygone elegance and makes one of the more commodious rainy-day walk-throughs in the city. The exterior treatment on the ground floor, with its elegant uptown look, isn't half bad, either, though one wonders about the psychology here. Every developer downtown appears to dream of transforming it into upper Madison Avenue. Main Street might be more realistic and more appropriate.
In any case, the best of the best here is the old. With its confident balancing of vertical and horizontal rhythms, its lion-head spandrels and its cornucopia of exuberant yet refined terra-cotta ornamentation, Burnham's building is grand again.