There is much to admire about the new gray-shingled building on the Alexandria waterfront, completed during the summer for the Chart House restaurant.
Splendidly located on the main city pier near the foot of King Street, it is a high-identity building in the right place. With its sweeping profile, fanciful towers and calculated asymmetries, it is picturesque, likable. And like much else on this old Virginia city's still-emerging new waterfront, it is a beneficent result of long-term planning.
Even so, the building is not wholly satisfying. The questions it stimulates are not so much about architectural style, although style is a factor, as about a certain disconcerting looseness of fit. For all of its virtues, the building does not seem rooted to its place. To the contrary, it seems almost adventitious.
This curious effect is due, at least in part, to the time that passed between conception and execution of the design. The building originally was plotted on a scale model 12 years ago, when the Washington firm of Keyes Condon Florance won a competition for this busy area of King Street, the city's principal east-west thoroughfare. Since then, of course, this part of the waterfront has been transformed, thanks to many small-scale, private restorations and, in no small measure, to KCF's work.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center reopened in 1983. This was a handsome retrofit of one of a cluster of World War I-era munitions factories on Union Street just north of King, especially remarkable in its new guise for the ingenious interior remodeling with an appropriate industrial look. Arthur Keyes, the partner in charge of this long-term project, recalls that "there was just enough architecture there to play with."
A year or so later another of these massive concrete structures, 201 N. Union St., was reopened as an office building. Here, it was the exterior transformation that counted most. The building was trimmed back at the top to reduce its bulk, and all facades were sheathed in contextual red brick with a minimal amount of glazed tile decoration -- just enough to celebrate the building's heavy-duty past in contrast to the more circumspect historical styles of adjacent Old Town.
Additional parts of the KCF master plan have been put in place intermittently -- a residential compound cum parking garage west of Union Street (designed by Metcalf & Associates), docks and piers for pleasure boats, a commodious boardwalk, a third factory renovation. The last, completed three years ago, was a critical piece. Occupying the northeast corner of King and Union streets, it is a relatively small chunk that nonetheless physically and visually blocked access to the boardwalk. Thus, the most important feature of the minimal renovation (brick sheathing, precast trim) was the diagonal, open arcade cut through the ground floor to lead people to the water.
Still to come is a conventional, festive marketplace food court, planned for a new glass-walled, shedlike structure on the main pier between the back of 201 Union St. and the Chart House restaurant. Ken Aultice, project manager for Alexandria Waterfront Associates, the developer of the entire package, reports that the place will be operational, at the latest, by spring.
It is remarkable that despite financial setbacks, construction delays and other obstacles, the strengths of the KCF plan remain the same as they were when the competition scheme was hatched during two months of intense labor at the firm's offices in downtown Washington. These strengths have to do with basic strategies -- the preservation and renovation of the industrial buildings, the placement of new structures, the intricate patterns of pedestrian access, the opening of the formerly sealed-off riverfront.
This is at heart a high-density, mixed-use, urban model, and for that we can remain thankful. Keyes recalls having to do battle (with city support) against the "grass-and-trees lobby" in the early going. As it happens, grass and trees are in plentiful supply elsewhere along the new waterfront. The federal and city governments worked in tandem over the years to ensure public ownership of or access to most of the land, and there is today a sequence of major and minor parks linked by a waterside path that is nearly continuous for four miles from Daingerfield Island to Jones Point.
But architecturally, the results of the KCF project are mixed. The contrasts in styles, from low-key industrial modern to nondescript contemporary to exuberant Queen Anne revivalism, were of course intentional -- this was even a fairly radical notion at the time, especially coming from a firm that until then had distinguished itself primarily for excellent orthodox modern architecture.
With hindsight one can wonder if a more consistent, poetic, modernist approach to the architecture might have proven more venturesome and, in the end, more satisfying. For instance, a tiny, fanciful Victorian-revival bandstand on the boardwalk seems particularly out of place. (Actually, let's face it, this sort of nostalgia-drenched cliche inundated the land during the 1980s.) The restaurant building, as I said, is much less objectionable, although on a subtler level it too seems forced.
To give Keyes his due, the original program called for the Alexandria boathouse to be on the bottom floor of the building. Accordingly, the architect took his design cues from an existing up-river boathouse and from the distinguished, still-standing buildings lining the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. (Ironically, when the new city boathouse went up in another riverside location, less than a mile to the north, it also conformed to the 19th-century type, though in a less flamboyant manner. Designed by the Falls Church firm of LBC&W Architects, it is a fine, no-nonsense landmark.)
The failure to rethink the design when the program changed is understandable, given the complexity of this project, its drawn-out construction schedule and Alexandria's entrenched hostility to architectural innovation. As it turned out, the final design of the building was turned over to a San Diego firm, Lancor Architects, that has done 40 or so restaurants for the Chart House chain. Following Keyes's basic scheme, Lancor did rather well, although the wall-like effect of the building's southern facade is bothersome. The interior is posh, soothing, efficient, corporate -- and thoroughly unexciting except for the barnlike lift of the space and the plentiful tall windows with beautiful views.
Nonetheless, an opportunity was missed to make a building that connects in a meaningful way to the city's real, rather than to its imagined, past, as well as to its future. It's an absence of content that affects the entire Alexandria waterfront. An important two-century episode in its history is being erased with but token recognition -- here a dry archaeological reconstruction, there a three-masted schooner. It makes one thankful for the bits and pieces of workaday flavor that do remain.
Probably, they won't last long. In the meantime, one can forgive many faults while walking along Alexandria's Potomac shore in the soft sun of a balmy autumn afternoon.