As dragons danced and firecrackers exploded, a small crowd of invited guests -- and about 20 angry motorists trapped in the block by police -- saw red bunting pulled from two matching columns of white marble in the District's Chinatown neighborhood yesterday.
The brief ceremony held in freezing weather marked the creation of a second ceremonial entrance to the city's small Chinese neighborhood. But the unveiling of the matched 18-foot-high, deeply carved columns at Seventh Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW also was an official recognition of the influence of the Chinese-American community on private developers who have built two massive office buildings on the fringe of Chinatown.
Architect Alfred Liu, who designed the columns as well as the ornate friendship arch two blocks away, pointed proudly to the architectural details of Techworld Plaza and 650 Massachusetts Avenue. The columns stand between the two office buildings.
"See there, that doorway, that's Chinese," he said. "And the grillwork is Chinese. And the paving stones have Chinese characters."
The two new buildings built by International Developers Inc., and another under construction at Seventh and I streets NW that already sports a Chinese pediment, are proof to Liu that the city, Chinese community and private developers can work together to create a new Chinatown that looks at least a little bit Chinese.
The efforts were bolstered by D.C. Council-passed design standards for Chinatown about two years ago. Before that, a steering committee made up of Chinatown leaders helped developers make appropriate design decisions, Liu said.
Liu sees a new Chinatown for the area bounded by Fifth, Ninth and G streets and Massachusetts Avenue NW. He expects more large office buildings to replace the older, three-story row houses that dot Chinatown. He dismisses them as structures of American design built by early German residents.
Chinese people moved to the present Chinatown in the 1930s when they were displaced by construction of federal buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue. Their new neighborhood was dominated by German merchants.
John Fondersmith, chief of the D.C. Office of Planning's downtown section, who attended the ceremony, said he thinks it is unlikely the three-story, federal-style buildings along H Street NW would be demolished, because they are within a historic district.
"We have kind of an up, down and up again with the new and old buildings," he said. "This creates a design problem, but it can be worked out."
Fondersmith, like Liu, applauded the design of the two new office buildings with their Chinese influence.
"We are giving people visual clues that this is Chinatown," he said. "We want people to know they are in Chinatown, in a special place."
Liu sees the new columns as adding to the sense of a special place. "These are monuments," he said. "The animal figures on top are there to guard against evil and to bring prosperity to Chinatown and the city."