Washington is not a colonial city, yet seems to suffer from a fixation on Federalist design.
Most of the oldest commercial and residential buildings, those that have survived, were built during and after the Civil War, not during the period right after the Revolution.
Georgetown is something of an exception, but even there many of the buildings arose after the establishment of the District of Columbia in 1802.
Despite this, Washington seems to have a preoccupation with its colonial buildings and an aversion to the rest of its architectural past.
For instance, Beekman Place on Northwest's Meridian Hill, one of the many new town house developments, was done in the Federalist style, totally ignoring the high Victorian and Beaux Arts architecture of the residence it replaced and its neighbor.
The facades of small scale, three-four- and five-story commercial buildings in Washington's old downtown along Pennsylvania Avenue, 7th and F streets are victims of this Federal fixation. They have been covered with aluminum screening, marble panels, metal siding, or enormous signs.
Elsewhere the story is not the same. Lowell, Mass, for instance, is a city with a rich Victorian past that has taken steps to keep its 19th century buildings and make them profitable by investing in its downtown.
Lowell was the country's first planned industrial community. Its easy access to the port of Boston and an inexpensive and reliable source of power from the Merrimack and Concords rivers made it the ideal site for the mill town it became.
The town expanded rapidly from the 1830s through the 1880s but began to decline after turn of the century. Electricity and the rise of the South as the manufacturing center for cheap textiles made Lowell's advantages unimportant.
The city government has been working to revitalize the community and has been encouraging business to reuse the mills, factories and commercial buildings that are the remains of the town's past.
Part of the city's strategy involves convincing property owners to under-take building improvement projects that add to, not detract from, the architectural character of their buildings. To help them the city hired a Boston-based firm of architects and planners, Andrew Notter and Associates. Together they produced "Lowell: The Building Book."
Lowell used photographs and drawings to describe the town's major commercial and residential styles, pointing out the particular feature or relationship of features that makes a building Federal, Italiante, or Romanesque. There are also design guide lines for the renovation of commercial structures, drawings showing appropriate and inappropriate changes, and suggestions for signs and storefronts.
The city and the design firm are particularly concerned that any changes follow three basic rules:
Make changes or additions that are compatible with the design of the building.
Keep original details and materials whenever possible. If new materials have to be used, make sure they harmonize with the old.
Never try to make a building look older than it really is by using details from earlier periods.
Owners of commercial blocks are also encouraged to strike a balance between the total design of the building and that of the individual storefront. General practice has been for each store to ignore the larger building. The result is a chaos that makes the entire building less attractive and promotes the image of a "seedy" downtown.
Many other communities have developed design guidelines for the rehabilitation and restoration of residential housing styles but Lowell is the first to deal in a comprehensive way with commercial buildings. It has given the merchants of Lowell a place to begin the refurbishing of their buildings.
The any fine examples of 19th century commercial architecture along F street in Washington could use the type of renovation suggested by Lowell.