The reincarnated Homer Building downtown is a fine old piece, resplendently restored on the outside. The new architecture, comprising both a horizontal and a vertical expansion of the building by Shalom Baranes Associates, is fine too -- bold, decisive and replete with appealing touches of texture and delicate detail.
There's something sad about it, though. Partly, I suspect, this is nothing more nor less than a continuing difficulty on my part in acclimating to the radical change in the old downtown. In terms of sheer nostalgia, the Homer Building, occupying the entire eastern frontage of 13th Street NW between F and G streets, is hard to top.
It was one of those distinctively non-corporate entities, its wood-paneled hallways filled from bottom to top with small merchants and craftspersons -- a mix of fine stores, watch repair shops, seamstresses, barbers, single-room law offices and the like -- bespeaking a different pace and scale of doing business. Clearly this was once a more personable and personal a place than it has become.
Of course, to a certain extent change was inevitable, and to that extent it makes no sense to bemoan it. One does not have to accept the narrow view that "the integrity of the building has been preserved" (a quote from a PR text in the new foyer) to acknowledge that the old Homer was in serious need of architectural and economic assistance. Or to see that in certain key respects it got what was needed.
The basic strategy was appropriate and daring. The original 1915 building was one of the few landmarks to which, in the process of increasing the downtown's density, a sizable addition could have been seamlessly attached. Long and low and distinguished by a row of sturdy-looking pilasters, it had the aspect of a base or a pedestal waiting for a top. But it is one thing to say it seemed right to add seven floors to the old structure. It's another thing to do it right.
Fortunately, as designed by Baranes (with Patrick Burkhart and Gary Martinez of his firm), this compendium of old and new is as adept and exciting a signal as could be of downtown's new scale. Though a continuation of architectural and ornamental themes established by Appleton Clark Jr., architect of the original building, Baranes' work up top possesses its own special qualities.
Principal among these is a proper rhythm. Taking a cue from the central entrance of the old building, but operating on a much larger scale, Baranes created a tripartite facade, with two symmetrical wings framing a slightly recessed middle section. Reinforced by subtle details -- metal railings and sconces fittingly placed and finely crafted, brick pilasters, precast concrete spandrels, and finely dimensioned window niches -- this pattern makes a strong facade enlivened by crisp gradations of light and shadow.
The architects also faced the challenge of expanding the building to the rear, with new facades on both F and G streets. These attached pieces underwent changes from first design to final product, reflecting a subtle shift in architectural tactics. As initially designed in 1983, they were intended to form lively punctuation marks along the street, differing in form and materials from the Homer Building and its new top. As built, they read more clearly as simple extensions. This is polite, straightforward and perfectly okay, although it's hard not to feel that Baranes pulled in his sails a bit too much -- a little more color, a little more contrast would have worked.
If the additions on the outside of the building are convincing and apposite, the interior has been thoroughly transformed -- something gained, something lost. On the inside the new Homer Building is a standard downtown formula, with separate elevator cores flanking an enormous skylit atrium. As such, it fits the requirements of the large-scale prestige office renters the new downtown is aiming for.
And this atrium is a splendid space, as such spaces go, featuring stunning steel spans in its upper reaches -- remindful of steel's exhilarating early days in train stations and industrial sheds -- and a stairwell that tumbles from fourth to ground floor in splendidly baroque fashion.
What is lost definitively is the lively spirit of the old place, with no acceptable substitute vision. For all of the architectural gymnastics, this atrium is a conceptual void. The terrific stairwell, for instance, seems an empty gesture when one realizes that essentially it leads nowhere. Nor does the bronze statue, though properly scaled, invest the space with meaning. A soaring but sentimental piece to begin with -- it's a casting of a 1950 allegorical figure conceived by Donald Harcourt De Lue for the Omaha Beach Memorial in Normandy -- it seems pathetically out of place here.
Except, perhaps, as yet another measure of pretension and confusion of aims. In this respect the expanded Homer Building stands as an unhappy rebuke to the assorted powers shaping the new downtown. One would just as soon have seen something as slapstick as a statue of a hot dog vendor in this place -- something at least with local commercial connections.
More to the point, perhaps, one would like to see lots of stores here, businesses to give life to downtown streets. But though the Homer Building's office floors are renting at a reasonable clip, according to an agent for the developer, most of its ample retail facilities, far more than required by city regulations, remain empty. This, in spite of a seemingly ideal location across from the new downtown Hecht's; of commendable efforts by the developer (the John Akridge Co.) and the city government to attract a department store to the building; and of care Baranes took to make sure "every store has an entrance facing the street."
Partly a sign of worrisome times, the record of retail inactivity also suggests that much of the store space here, located below grade, may prove to be illusory. It also offers dispiriting evidence of the "numbers game" downtown -- small-scale merchants being forced out by the destruction-construction cycle and by greatly increased rents. Plus, it highlights the game of hesitation being played by national retail chains that like suburban demographics better than downtown's.
This sorry story does little to diminish the architectural achievement -- in some ways the new Homer Building demonstrates Washington's urbane architecture in peak form. But the tale does focus attention on the tantalizing question -- "What should downtown be?" -- that receives rather less thought than it deserves.