People visiting here for the first time, whether American or foreign, often remark on how beautiful this city is. For a century, Washington proudly presented magnificent buildings and charming streets with the kind of houses that bespeak civilized living.
But lately, the relentless building boom has caused those who care about Washington's beauty to fret that downtown might be transformed into another of those urban collections of cold, boxlike buildings.
The buck is as almighty here as any other place in the republic. So the deadly swing of the wrecking ball is a constant movement. Suddenly, the familiar is gone. There is a disquieting gap, like the place where an old tooth used to be.
Then, in what seems like only weeks, another of these 12-story squat, glass-faced office buildings is standing where there was once a smaller but more pleasant structure you could imagine belonging in Paris. It might have sheltered a neat cafe or a bookstore, or maybe even a workaday bar; but now grim technocratic business is left in its place.
Though the District of Columbia last year strengthened its law protecting landmarks and historic districts, there seems to be no letup in the demolition of buildings around the downtown area that always put flavor and heartiness into this Capital Soup. It seems that all the bureaucrats of the nation -- business, govenment, trade association, lobbying group or whatever -- crave a prestige downtown D.C. address. Office construction in the District has increased 57 percent in the past five years, and the aesthetics of the city are none the better.
What's more, when old blocks where people shopped, drank, ate and maybe even lived are torn down for office buildings, punctually disgorging themselves of humanity at night -- well, there is a neutron-bomb effect. The buildings are there, but the people are gone.
The conquest of living blocks by the commercially profitable but mute warehouses of paper-shuffling and digital-calculating creates an eeriness that is not Washington's experience alone. Atlanta Journal columnist Ron Hudspeth recently lamented how his city's downtown has become a no-man's land of antiseptic towers. A half dozen other cities are similarly afflicted having lost their downtown blood, guts, heart and soul.
Downtowns, indeed cities themselves, need the charm of old buildings that immmediately imply history, and can last and smile a little when you look at them long enough. There is a pleasure in seeing the familiar because it imspires thoughts about how life goes on, and shouldn't be too earnest, and certainly not cold.
The beauty and warmth of Washington was largely created in the 1870s when the capital was in a postwar boom. Happily, the builders worked in a more leisurely and graceful time. The result was carefully constructed houses, mansions and neo-classical Victorian buildings. It was an urbanism one could live with comfortably, and it prevailed until the end of World War Ii.
A read of "Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings," by James M. Goode, details (sometimes in devastating photos) how worthy, important buildings, which make us feel good to be in a city, disappear.
With them go marvelous facades, rich ornamentation, wrought-iron balconies, street "furniture" (hitching posts, watering troughs, public pumps) and elegant interior with exquisite mantels and carved stair rails. Instead, we get prim lobbies, obedient elevators and efficient escalators carrying us all to Technocracy, Inc.
All is not lost, of course. No bureaucrat would dare to recommend the razing of that White House adjunct, the Executive Office Building -- born of Second Restoration architecture -- to make way for some 12-story blank-faced monolith. And the Willard Hotel was saved in the nick of time, and stands reprieved on Pennsylvania Aveune, waiting for its own restoration.
Moreover, Georgetown's sidewalks teem with people at night because the buildings there are old, worldwise and distinguished. But watch it. Office buildings sprout near the C & O Canal.
I am sure there are good citizens in every city, fresh water or whatever, who keep an eye on the character and preservation of local architecture and who aren't afraid to oppose the bottom-line, more-building-for-the-buck bandits.