Special to The Washington Post
Start hunting for examples of non-residential mid-century modern architecture in Washington and you find that prime samples of the style are all over the city. There’s a caveat, though: Not all have aged well, and many have their fair share of detractors.
Take the Housing and Urban Development headquarters in Southwest, technically known as the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building. Designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968, the curved concrete façade, with its broad bank of featureless windows, almost screams “faceless bureaucracy,” and the building has been derided by HUD employees, architects, and Washingtonians for decades. Still, it’s a good example of the brutalist style popularized by architect Le Corbusier that constitutes a wing of modernism.
Another love-it-or-hate-it example is DC’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library at 9th and G streets downtown. The steel, brick, and glass box was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and has been designated a historic landmark, but doesn’t appear to have many admirers beyond strict preservationists and the most dogged architecture fans.
Other prime examples include the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall and the Pan American Health Organization’s building in Foggy Bottom—both circular structures—as well as the National Geographic headquarters on 17th Street and the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. There’s something about their lines—as well as the liberal use of concrete and relative lack of windows—that endow these buildings with a sadly dated look.
But that’s not the case with every structure from that era. Take the U.S. Tax Court building, located at 400 2nd Street, which was designed by Victor Lundy in 1966. As Carl Elefante, a principal with Quinn Evans Architects, points out, “it’s an absolutely pure geometric building, a real Washington version of a modern building that works with the horizontal, not the vertical.” With its granite skin and unforgivingly sharp lines and angles, the building remains a classy gem hidden among a cluster of municipal structures.
Ditto with the National Gallery’s East Wing, an example of late modernism that was finished in 1978. Not everyone agrees, but Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University’s graduate program in historic preservation, feels, “It’s one of [I.M.] Pei’s great works, one of the great museums of its era.” The building’s wild angles conceal, he said, a wide range of flexible gallery spaces and offices, and its marble façade “converses with its neighbors,” particularly the National Gallery’s West Building, just across 4th Street.
To learn more about mid-century buildings in the area, Longstreth recommended checking out Martin Moeller’s AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC, or Buildings of the District of Columbia, by Pamela Scott.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer and one of four judges in The Washington Post’s ‘Mad Men’ Look Contest.
What do you think of these mid-century D.C. buildings?
Tell us in the comments what you think of these buildings -- do you like one but not the others? Do they grow on you? Do you live or work near one of them? Are there others that we didn’t mention that you feel strongly about? Tell us about in the comments section.
Submit: Click to view photos from readers and to submit your own.
Does your home’s interior design have that ‘Mad Men’ Look? Enter our contest by uploading photos of your home’s style.
To coincide with the return of the “Mad Men” season this month on March 25, we are covering Washington’s mid-century modern design. Read our previous coverage: