Last April, Freddy Chan and Sooney Dejavichitlert didn't know anything about art deco. The two young business partners had just bought Arbaugh's restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, a 1938-vintage place with many original furnishings, and were going to tear the insides out and start anew. "It looked like an old wreck," Chan remembers thinking.
Two months later, the Thai Taste restaurant opened in art deco splendor -- with many of the original features spruced up and some new ones added. Flamingo-pink neon signs now invite people into a room with pink walls and black booths and paneling, silver chairs and mirrors, little shell-shaped lights on the wall, and a "Cocktails" scrawled in italic pink neon over the bar.
Chan and Dejavichitlert had joined the art deco revival -- with help and prodding from the Art Deco Society of Washington.
Members of the group had convinced them that they had something special, and that with a little effort it could look even better, persuading them to leave most of the interior intact and renovate the restaurant. Avis Black, the society's preservation chairman had stepped in with interior designer Jo Flemming and designed the interior for free.
They were right, Chan said, "100 percent right. Everybody likes it. . . . To be frank, I knew nothing about art deco until I opened this place. People said this is art deco. Now, I still know just a little bit about art deco, but I am learning."
For a decade, the art deco revival has been gaining momentum, and in Washington, this celebration of the designs and fashions of the 1920s and 1930s has centered on the society.Since its start three years ago, the group has grown to 500 members and succeeded in turning art deco from a privately indulged passion to a force with which land planners, developers and builders must reckon.
The buildings that society members love are all over town. There is the apartment building at 4801 Connecticut Ave. NW, for instance, with its circular aluminum canopy over the entrance, or the super-streamlined WTOP transmitting station on University Boulevard in Wheaton, or the ribbon-like windows and curved corners topped with a zig-zag crown at the Hecht Co. warehouse at 1401 New York Ave. NE.
Currently, the society is engaged in a battle to save the Greyhound Bus Terminal in downtown Washington, and is fighting to preserve the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring and make it the centerpiece of an art deco historic district.
The whole art deco business began long before most Art Deco Society members were born, with the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. It faded into obscurity about 15 years later, but it was a widespread movement while it lasted, affecting everything from large apartment buildings and hotels to small-town movie houses and diners, as well as mass-market items such as furniture, radios and bathroom fixtures.
Art deco design was characterized by combining the ornateness of classical design with the streamlined shapes and modern materials of the Buck Rogers era. Curved corners and sweeping canopies were added to sharp rectangles and zig-zags.
For playfulness and zest, designers used exotic pastel colors and jet black. And to prove they were modern, they used the latest materials of the day, such as aluminum, chrome, plastic, glass bricks and neon lights.
The current revival began as a fad for period prints, posters and movies. Since then, sales of art deco memorabilia, furniture, art and clothing have gone up, as have the prices.
Annie Groer, Washington reporter for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, lives in a Northwest Washington house that is, she said, 80 percent art deco -- from streamlined fireplace fittings to a Pepto-Bismol pink bathroom fixtures with a pitch black toilet seat.
"It's such a definitive style that it's real grabby," she said. "It's so clean and it's so sleek. It's really evocative of an age that we're never going to have again."
It is also addicting. Covering a Jesse Jackson rally at an old art deco movie theater in Youngstown, Ohio, Groer left her tape recorder running and took time out to examine the lighting fixtures. At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel's Starlight Roof, her eyes drifted from President Reagan and Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and fixed on the etched mirrors and wall decorations. "It was distracting," she said.
With such rampant interest in art deco, it is little surprise that buildings once dismissed or taken for granted are being hailed as architectural treasures. Art Deco Society President Richard Striner has catalogued more than 400 art deco buildings in the Washington area alone, and the Smithsonian Institution is scheduled to publish his book on the city's art deco this month.
Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University's graduate program on historic preservation, said art deco "was very scornfully dismissed as fool's play, just popular stuff" when he was in architecture school in the mid-1960s.
Since then, Longstreth said, architects have fallen in with the spirit of the popular revival and undergone "a tremendous change of attitude." Scholars now recognize art deco as "a vivid form of expression," he said.
There remain, of course, differences of opinion over just what is and isn't true art deco architecture. E. Brooke Lee III, whose development firm is seeking to tear down a group of stores opposite the Silver Theatre and build a new building there, is annoyed that the art deco group is trying make his property part of a historic art deco district.
"Personally, I think good art deco, the classical examples, have some value," he said. "But I do not feel, and never have, that the Silver Theatre or the shopping center are classical examples of art deco. I really question that there is anything more than an art deco flavor to them."
As for his own block of buildings, he said, "My personal feeling is that it is not attractive. I'm not saying that more classical art deco styles, like the Chrysler Building in New York City do not have some merit. But these were just an offshoot."
At the Silver Theatre itself, many of the art deco trimmings -- a brick tower, opaque glass and tiled entranceways -- were torn up days after the society announced it would seek to have the building preserved.
"I have seen some dirty tricks," said Striner, society president as well as chief historian at the Capitol Historical Society. "But I have never, until now, seen an owner systematically try to ruin or desecrate a historic piece of architecture."
David L. Burka, property manager for the theater and shopping center, which are owned by his father, said these things were done "to protect the value of the property." He said he had brought in his own architectural experts to inspect the location and "they think it's pretty mediocre." Saving the buildings would be "doing a disservice" to art deco, he added.
Burka, who said the community would better benefit if the old buildings were torn down and a new commercial development built in its place, said he has not met anyone who likes the building "except this small group of people, this art deco group. And quite honestly, I don't know who made them an expert."
Striner said the society "isn't antidevelopment in any way," and that the art deco area in Silver Spring would look quite nice with well-designed high-rises behind the current art deco buildings. The area, he said, could be turned into "something of national significance."
Striner spoke these words while sitting in his element: at a table in an art deco restaurant, opposite the art deco facade of the old Penn Theatre facade on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. He agrees that many people have trouble seeing art deco buildings the way he does. "A lot of people consider them tawdry" he said. "Indeed, they ARE tawdry. But fix them up, and they are diamonds in the rough."
Striner said the revival of the "very mischievous, very playful culture of the 1920s and '30s" comes partly in response to the "more jarring features of 1970s culture. It's not escapism, purely. It's also a model for greater elegance, gentility in dealings with other people."
Black, a Washington lawyer and head of the deco society's preservation committee, said the glamor of the period is part of what attracted her to art deco. "In my fantasy life, I picture myself in the middle of a Fred Astaire movie," she said.
"This is nostalgia, which is wonderful," she continued. "The nice thing about nostalgia is, you can pick and choose. You can take the nice stuff and forget about the bad stuff, which is different from the people who had to live through it. I don't have to. I can just have fun."