While my wife and I were exploring Takoma Park’s architecture recently, we discovered a huge and handsome radio tower across the District line on the property of the District’s Brightwood police station. Wikipedia says it’s the Hughes Memorial Tower, 761 feet tall, but doesn’t explain who Hughes was or what connection he or she had to the tower.
— Tom Coates,
John S. Hughes joined Washington’s police department in 1942 as a patrolman in what was then called the 3rd Precinct. He rose to become supervisor of the 1st District, a large swath that included most of downtown. According to a 1959 Washington Post article, the area included 20 licensed fortune tellers, none of whom were any help in catching criminals.
In 1978, Hughes was an assistant chief in charge of the department’s Technical Services Bureau. As the name implies, the unit used technology to support the police department’s core crime-fighting mission. “Timeliness of police response equates to a fully integrated network of radio, telephone, teletype and computer systems,” Hughes wrote in the department’s annual report that year.
And how better to do that than with a massive antenna? The tower behind the 4th District station at 6001 Georgia Ave. NW is owned by the District and overseen by the city’s Office of Unified Communications. It handles voice and wireless communications for public safety agencies: police, fire, EMS and the like.
The tower was completed in 1989 and named after Hughes, who died in 1995. It largely replaced the shorter, red-and-white tower that sits behind it. (That tower is used by federal agencies.)
The three-legged tower was not without its critics. Many residents decried its gargantuan size. “In the way of beauty, it offers nothing,” Charlie Glenn, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, told The Post in 1988. “It is a very strange structure.”
But one person’s strange is another person’s beautiful, especially if that other person has a soft spot for towers. “You have to admit, it is a gorgeous tower,” said John Terhar, director of engineering at Channel 50, which leases space on the tower. “It is awesome.”
Channel 50’s offices are in Glover Park on Wisconsin Avenue NW. The station’s broadcast signal is sent via Verizon lines across town to Georgia Avenue, where some 45 kilowatts of power go up a hollow metal tube to the very top of the tower and are magically transformed into a million watts of broadcasting power — “which gives us a hellacious signal, all the way out to West Virginia,” John said. “It’s amazing how many people can pick us up.”
The tower was designed by Henry “Hank” McGinnis, a Texas engineer who cut his teeth building electric transmission line towers.
“He told me how he came to design that tower that way,” said Brookes Baker, a Fort Worth engineer who worked for McGinnis’s Landmark Tower Corp. in the 1990s. “He was having lunch with a fellow one time. He was doodling on his napkin, and he drew the Christian symbol of a fish. Somehow his napkin got turned so the fish was looking upward. He just kind of doodled and drew some lines around it and said: ‘Ho. That could be a tower.’ ”
McGinnis died in 2002. Towers built to his design — known as Landmark towers (or Adelphon towers, after an earlier company he owned) — pierce the sky in Cincinnati; Mesquite, Tex., and elsewhere.
Gary Minker is a broadcast engineer who hired McGinnis in 1995 to design a 519-footer for Mangonia Park, Fla. He finds the towers attractive but said they are not without their quirks. His was a nightmare to put together, taking 11 months rather than the expected three.
Fortunately, it didn’t suffer from one teething problem that afflicted Washington’s tower. Gary said McGinnis had miscalculated some elements, opting to use half-inch bolts when larger 7 / 8-inch bolts were needed.
“You’d literally shear a bolt in half, and it would fall to ground,” he said. Dozens of cars parked around the police station were damaged by falling bolts before the problem was fixed, Gary said.
With its three curving legs, Eiffel Tower-esque appearance and secret, hidden Jesus fish, the Georgia Avenue tower — the largest free-standing structure in the city — is certainly eye-catching.
“He was very concerned with the look” of his towers, Brookes said of McGinnis. “And they are beautiful. They just have a grace about them.”