Almost every one who lives or does business in Old Town Alexandria has encountered the Board of Architectural Review at one time or another. The board's blessing is a prerequisite for almost any alteration in the architectural fabric of Old Town - from major plans to build or demolish structures to the minutiae of hanging a sign.
The nine-member board has been the stumbling block for many an architectural dream that the board thought would be incongruous in a seaport town built primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most recently the city itself ran into trouble on the design of a courthouse-office building complex it wants to construct on the south side of King's Street's 500 block.
By a 5-to-4 vote, the board disapproved the design of the court house on the grounds that "the facades are not appropriate and do not fit in well with King Street, and that the building is incongruous to the rest of Old Town."
The five-story courthouse-office complex, to be constructed on the last parcel of urban renewal land left on King Street, will cost an estimated $9.6 million and require three years for completion.
Architect Joseph Saunders, of the Alexandria firm Saunders, Cheng, and Appleton, says an appeal of the board's decision against his design will be made in September to the City Council where a simple majority can overrule the board.
The courthouse design has become a cause celebre among some of Old Town's preservationists. Jean Keith, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation called the design "brutal" at the architectural board's public hearing.
"The building will do the same thing for downtown Alexandria that the FBI building does for downtown Washington," said Keith.
Others have said privately that "the building looks like a computer print-out," and "the orield windows on the court house look like yellow jacket nests hung on the side of the building."
The majority of those speaking at the public hearing asked the board to disapprove the design.
The board's view that Sandra's design was "incongruous" brings into focus a problem that has frequently faced the board - accomodating contemporary architecture to a setting established primarily during the previous two centuries.
According to the city ordinance that created Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review 30 years ago, the board is charged only with preventing "developments incongruous to the old and historic aspect of the surroundings," and considering "general design and arrangements," and "texture, material and color."
The ordinance says nothing about "quality" of design. And there are those who say that the board has discouraged "quality" architecture in Old Town.
According to Saunders, what has been encouraged has been "copying" - reproducing in new buildings designs from the 18th century. Old Town structures built 100 and 200 years ago may soon be outnumbered by new ones built within the last decade to look just like their older neighbors.
"The danger," Saunders told the board, "is that excessive use of reproductions and duplications could eventually swallow up the original.
"You don't surround a diamond with rhinestones. Continual reproduction leads to architectural monotony, not architectural harmony," he went on to say.
William Laird Warwick, who has served on the board for 15 years, the last seven as its chairman, sees it differently.
"If reproductions are done properly, I don't agree that they detract from the original," he said. "As for contemporary design, personally, I don't feel that contemporary design that is in scale, that is truly good design, using materials that are harmonious would be incongruous to any neighborhood.
"But you have two problems. Contemporary design was not the intent of the ordinance. And there are no guidelines on what is good contemporary design," Warwick said.
It is the lack of guidelines and standards that most disturbs David Rosenthal, an Alexandria architect who once served on the board.
"The problem here in Alexandria is the board is given the charge but is left out on a limb. They need specific criteria," said Rosenthal.
Warwick disagrees. "We might then find ourselves tied into rigidness," he said.
The whole issue of moder design is Old Town has been especially sensitive since the city began its King Street urban renewal project in the mid 1960s. When Tavern Square was completed in 1967, it was - and still is - reviled by many Old Towners as being too stark. Subsequent designs for urban renewal construction along King Street have been far more traditional, using mullioned windows, Georgian cornices, dormers and mansard roofs.
"It's going to be very puzzling for archeologists some day," says Gene Ray Lewis, an architect who has served four years on the BAR. "There really isn't going to be anything typical of this period."
In fact, Lewis says, he "can think of really noteworthy contemporary architecture in Old Town. But really I don't think it's the place for it. I think you can use the scale and materials of the 18th century."
Architects like Saunders and Rosenthal disagree. Rosenthal is fond of quoting Mies von der Rohe that "each architecture is a translation of its own epoch into space." And Saunders maintains that the requirements of some buildings, like the courthouse, demand so much mass and scale that building them in an 18th century context would be ludicrous.
"The court house is a building with 230,000 square feet of floor area, covering two-thirds of a city block," he says.
Saunders says, however, that in his courthouse-office building design he has tried to pay attention to important elements of the older architectural surroundings. He points out that the facade along King Street is broken with a recessed arcade. Windows are semetrically set, and the courthouse is to have a mansard roof. Along King Street there is a skylight, in a mansard style, running the length of the building.
"We thinkg the mass and scale of the building doesn't lend itself to reproduction architecture," he says. We have tried very diligently to design a building that is harmonious. In fact, I think we and the board are trying to do the same thing."
Warwick says he thinks the problems of finding suitable designs for large scale new buildings in Old Town will begin to diminish now "that we've gotten through urban renewal."
There are not many vacant parcels left in the Old and Historic District large enough to accomodate buildings the size of the courthouse, he said. And it is those buildings that seem to lend themselves most often to contemporary designs. "Over the years, the board has accomplished a great deal," Warwick says. "If we had had no Board of Architectural Review, you really don't know what would have happened, but I think we would have had more modifications in store fronts in commercial areas than we've had. Also I think we might have had kitzchy types of things by people who wanted to fluff up their houses without the knowledge of how to do it right."
Another board member, Hugh Witt, said that if the board had not exercised stringent control over the years, "We'd have had another Rosslyn in Alexandria."