A modern municipal courthouse and commercial complex proposed for the heart of Old Town Alexandria has created an uproar among residents who feel that only traditional architectural styles are appropriate there.
It is a controversy that pits architects and architectural critics agains many residents of Old Town - the oldest parts of the city that still calls itself George Washington's home town. It is an area of considerable charm where many of the colonial-style townhouses are more than 100 years old and property values have soared.
The dispute also illustrates a nationwide debate over what kind of buildings should be erected in the parts of major cities considered old and historic. Those Alexandrias who would force adherence to traditional architectural styles in Old Town point to the area's small and shops nd restaurants, its quiet streets and alleys, contrasting them with the sprawling shopping centers and subdivisions.
The defenders of the proposed courthouse and commerical center defend worth and say that modern architecture, which meets modern needs, need not clash with old surroundings, "Could you make the Empire State building look like it was built in the 18th Century?" remarked Joseph Saunders, the courthouse's arr
The propoed courthose complex was rejected by a 5-4 vote by Alexndria's Board of Architectural Review in July on grounds that the "building is not harmonious with and is incongrous to the old and historic aspect of the surroudings." The nine member panel las resposibility for passing on the appropriateness of sturctures proposed for the Old Town area.
Last week about 200 opponents of the design filled the City Council chambers to hear an appeal on the Board's ruling by the architects, the Alexandria firm of Saunders, Cheng & Appleton. The Council deferred a final decision until December but asked the architect to modify the building's facades by taking into account the public comments. The Council also authorized City Manager Douglas Harman to complete plans for the planned underground 300-car garage and to advertise for bids.
"I'm afraid that this city may process its garbage throught more attractive buildings than it would process its citizens through the legal system," Hugh E. Witt, a member of the Board of Architectural Review, told to City Council as he passes around photographs of the city incineratior, a Georgian style structure now used by the city as a storage facitility.
Another Board member, Gene Ray Lewiss of the firm Lewis-Wisnewski & Associates, disagreed. In a interview, he said the new addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington is a good example of contrasting architectural styles that complement each other. "The best of contemporary design." Lewis added, "Looked as 'good now as it did five to 10 years ago."STThe $10 million courthouse project is to front on the 500 block of King Street and be bounded by King S. Pitt, and S. Saint Asaph Streets. The site is the last large tract remaining in the city's Gadsby urban renewal project. King Street traditionaly has been a major commercial thoroughfare, a fact that helps explain much of the current controversy.
The choice of King Street for the project by the City COuncil in May, 1975, necessarily introduced the concept of a joint public private development because that block already had been designated part of the urban renewal project and a private developer, Gadsby Associates, had been selected to renovate the area. It was also decided by the city that the commercial character of King Street would be maintained on the 500 block.
The new facility is to house the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, which currently occupies rented office space.
he General District Court and the Circuit Court, both now in the City Hall building, will move into the new courthouse as well. In addition, the offices of the Sheriff and Commonwealth's Attorney will relocate to the new building.
he office space in the commercial structure is expected to be rented by attorney and others with a need to be near the courthouse, but ther will be plenty of retail space as well.
The design calls for a three-sided commercial building with an inner courtyard at the center. The courthouse itself, a rectangular, five-story structure, will be set behind the courtyard itself, a rectangular, five-story structure, will be set behind the courtyard and is to be approached from a two-story high entrance fronting King Street. The commercial building includes a skylight at the roofline, a feature that has particularly offended the traditionalists. The architect says the feature was requested by the commercial developer.
Critics argue that the proposed design fails to fulfil the requirements set forth in a "Statement of Architectural Intent" passed by the City Council in 1967. That statement says that exact reproduction of architecture is not required. But it adds: "However, it is essential, and should be clearly understood, that the redevelopment architecture must be in the style of the periods in use prior to 1846."
"Its as though everyone in town had just lost sight of this architectural Intent in City Council passed," remarked Jean Keith, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation and a leading critic of the proposed complex.
Keith, sitting in the kitchen of his 161-year-old town house he rebuilt himself, conceded it was theoretically possible to mix contemporary with traditional architecture, but he said the really was something else again. "I have seen some attempts at compatible architecture in other historic districts and I haven't seen one that works."
A major complaint from the detractors of the project is that the courthouse is lost within the commerctial complex. "How are we going to tell anybody where this courthouse is? "Go up that treet and it's behind the ie-cream parlor?," Keith asked.
Charles W. Turner, who was a member of the architectural review board made the motion to reject the design, complains about the "bedpsot-like" treatment of the building corners and the skylight at the roof level, and he does not like the balconies and doors at the second floor level either.
"The facts are that buildings have been designed in recent times in that area that a quite large and are considered to be appropriated," Turner said in a telephone interview.
Turner and other critics point to the Capitol, Governor's Palace, and Wren Building at Williamsburg as examples of large buildings that have been built in a traditional style. Two other examples cited are Hollis Hall on Harvard Square and Old North at Georgetown University.
Joseph Saunders, the target of the criticism and central figure in the controversy, sits in his conference room surrounded by drawings and model of the courthouse and looking somewhat perplexed but the entire affiar. Saunders is a well-known local architect who has designed many building in the City, including the classic-style City Bank in old Town.
Saunders points out the City had instructed him to "maximize" the retail space on king Street while at the same time giving the courthouse a special identify from the street. "Now, how do you do both?" he asked.
In addition, sauders said the city and Gadsby Associated had requested 16 per cent more floor space on the 500block than on any other distated the bulk of this thing," he said.
"These are some of the constraints we're faced with."
Saunders feels he has destroyed the argument that buildings of similar size been successfully designed in a traditional style with a simple chart showing the relative size of his building and the ones cited by his critics to prove their point.
While his courthouse measures 246 feet in length, the Governor's Palace is only 62 feet long. The City Bank building measures 104 feet in length. The largest of the structures, the 150-foot-long Old North building at Georgetwon Universty, is only slightly larger than half the size of the courthouse. It comes down to a matter of scale.
"Could you make the Pentagon look like it was built in the 18th of century."
Saunders has done some research and he believes the bulk of architectural criticism to be on his side.He points out for instance, a comment by Hormon H. Golstone, Chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation committee.
Goldstone wrote in 1971 in the journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that "all the criteria that make for good urban design also apply to the special case of new buildings in old districts" He listed these criteria in their order of importance as the mass of the building,its color, texture and materials, its scale, and "much the least important" its style.
Saunders says that citizens who believe they are fighting to protect Old Town actually are destroying it. "Come back 20 years from now and who's going to know which is Old Town and which is the copy.
The architect will discuss changes in the facade of the building during the next two weeks with members of the Board of Architectural Review and the Architectural Review Panel, in latter body was set up in 1964 to review developer's plans for the Urban Renewal Area.
The panel approved the originl design, although only one of its three membes took part indecision, the other two re fusing to participate for varying reasons.