In July 1958, the Equitable Life Insurance Co. moved from 14th St. NW to a brand-new office building uptown. Constructed for the then-princely sum of $2.25 million, the company’s new headquarters spread out from a cupola-topped entrance in two long arms of red brick, set back from Wisconsin Avenue NW behind an ample lawn.
Only 13 years later, Equitable’s chairman Charles E. Phillips was dreaming of something grander for the site, which is across the street from the elite Sidwell Friends School in Tenleytown. “Insurance Firm Plans Big Complex,” announced the Washington Post in September 1971. Phillips hoped to raze the ’50s building and replace it with 1.2-million-square-feet of offices and shops connected by underground parking garages.
Phillips’ vision never came to pass, and the project faded from public memory, but there are clues as to why. In 1972, a group of Northwest residents called Citizens for City Living asked the zoning commission to ban all high-rise office construction west of Rock Creek Park, citing “commercial vandalism” of their neighborhoods. And before that, neighbor-hood activists blocked a proposed redevelopment of McLean Gardens, the residential complex directly to the south of Equitable.
In 1978, Fannie Mae bought the site from Equitable and moved in. Thirty-seven years later, in 2015, Fannie Mae announced that it would sell the campus and move downtown. Locals speculated about who might buy the property and worried that density and traffic would follow. “People were really hoping Sidwell Friends would buy it,” says Angela Bradbery, the current ANC commissioner for 3C-06. Their logic: A school has a milder impact than a big, mixed-use project.
A joint venture of Roadside Development and a Japanese homebuilder, NASH, wound up purchasing the site last year. Roadside plans a mix of residential units, stores (most notably, a Wegmans grocery), and possibly offices and a hotel. Several new buildings will be built, and the plans are still evolving. “A lot of the buildings haven’t been designed. We’re more at the massing level at this point,” says Richard Lake, a Roadside principal.
At no point did NASH-Roadside entertain tearing down the 1958 building. Lake has actually gone in the other direction: He filed an application in June to designate the building a historic landmark. He recently explained why to City Paper’s Andrew Giambrone. The 228,000-square-foot building is in excellent shape. Roadside is experienced in adaptive reuse of historic structures, and the tax credits that come with landmark status can be a tremendous financial boon to developers. Finally, landmarking offers the intangible but crucial benefit of community reassurance: There are fewer unknowns with an existing building than a still-undesigned one.
The National Register of Historic Places was set up in 1935 and expanded in the 1960s amid rising alarm over the destruction of architectural treasures like the original Penn Station in New York. To qualify for inclusion, buildings generally must be at least 50 years old and meet at least one of a few criteria of significance.
Fannie Mae’s application for landmark status cites its connection to a historical event—the growth of the insurance industry in 20th-century D.C.—and its embodiment of the Colonial Revival style of architecture. Prepared by a consultant group of architectural historians, the application chronicles in detail the history of insurance in America and the building’s Georgian Revival and Colonial Revival features. It will almost certainly meet with success at the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, which can add properties to D.C.’s own register and recommend buildings for the national one. Lake says his first presentation to the board got “extraordinarily positive” comments, and the D.C. Preservation League supports it.
Mention the matter to a local architect, though, and you might get a less enthusiastic response.
The Fannie Mae building, designed by Leon Chatelain Jr., possesses little architectural merit. Yes, it pays homage to the Virginia Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg. But that building’s Georgian grace gets lost in translation. The pleasing symmetry of the sash windows becomes deadening in the Fannie Mae building, repeated ad nauseam down its long brick facade. The proportions are wrong, too. Projecting wings at either end appear bulky, overwhelming the central volume that ought to be dominant. Compare Fannie Mae with the Neo-Georgian sprezzatura of Edwin Lutyens’ British ambassador’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue NW, and you’ll see the difference immediately.
The case for landmarking Fannie Mae has serious weak points. How significant a historical event, really, is the growth of the insurance industry? Can Fannie Mae be considered a prime example of the Colonial Revival if it came well after the style’s peak, and if it expresses the style no more eloquently than countless schools and government buildings of the same era?
NASH-Roadside has practical reasons for wanting to keep the building. Converting an existing building to new uses has environmental benefits because it consumes less energy than demolishing it and starting over. And if Lake’s current idea comes to fruition, local residents will be able to picnic and watch performances on Fannie Mae’s lawn, to be reborn as a public space with shade-giving trees.
But this would all be feasible without a historic listing. The tax credits were only a secondary consideration, according to Lake. “The real issue is, it was going to get designated, in my opinion, in one way or the other,” he says. “Either by me, or by the community. I wanted the community not to think they were going to have a fight with us. … We felt the best way to preserve it and give everybody comfort is to make it historic.”
Comfort is the operative word here. Even proponents of the landmarking struggle to muster positive enthusiasm for the building, beyond the fact that it’s low-rise, set back from Wisconsin, and familiar.
One can hardly blame Lake for doing what he felt had to be done. But once it’s on the register, we’ll likely be stuck with the undistinguished facade of Fannie Mae forever, thanks to the prevailing “better the devil you know” attitude. The site abuts what the D.C. Comprehensive Plan designates a “Main Street Mixed Use Corridor,” stretching from 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW up to Tenley Circle. In the future, in theory, this corridor might have extended farther south, enlivening Wisconsin with street-facing stores and restaurants or more housing. That possibility has dwindled.
Worse, landmarking a mediocre building of dubious significance in order to preempt community opposition sets a bad precedent. It signals that the preservation process can be co-opted to block changes that neighbors don’t like. This will make the public more skeptical of its value over time.
Affluent, transit-accessible Tenleytown needs to adapt with the rest of the city to ease a housing affordability crisis. The hundreds of residences that NASH-Roadside will build at Fannie Mae are part of the solution, and the plan has advantages for current area residents as well. Despite their concerns, Bradbery says, her neighbors “are excited about having a Wegman’s. They’re excited about a movie theater. They like the idea of a community gathering space.” This project could be a win for everyone, for now. But the landmarking process emerges worse for wear.