There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Most architects working today cherish the purity of a clean line and a plain, smooth surface—but not Amy Weinstein. If you’re walking around Capitol Hill and you see a building with a multicolored facade, elaborately worked railings, or bricks arranged in bold patterns, chances are it’s hers. As opposed to the “less is more” credo of Mies van der Rohe and other modernists, Weinstein’s philosophy could be summed up in the words of her former boss, the famous postmodern architect Robert Venturi: “Less is a bore.”
Over her career, Weinstein has completed nearly 20 projects on the Hill, a neighborhood brimming with her favorite material, red brick. The largest and probably most admired is the Townhomes on Capitol Hill, an affordable housing complex built under the Hope VI program.
Weinstein’s latest, though, is more complex and more prominent than her past projects on the Hill and stands six stories high. It’s a once-in-a-generation addition to the historic area around Eastern Market.
Opening next month, 700 Penn combines offices, apartments (market-rate and subsidized), and retail space on the block bounded by Pennsylvania, 7th and 8th streets SE, and C Street SE. (It actually includes C Street SE itself, which will be reopened to traffic and given a new landscaped plaza.) The site used to be occupied by Hine Junior High School, which closed in 2008 and was demolished in 2015 after merging with the former Eliot Junior High.
Capitol Hill has few developable sites of this size, and opportunities to build up in the historic district are rare. Developers Stanton-EastBanc saw the site as a perfect candidate for dense, transit-oriented development.
A group of neighbors thought otherwise and filed a lawsuit, objecting to the project’s scale and density. This followed already lengthy negotiations between the developers and the local ANC, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and the Zoning Commission over how 700 Penn would look and what public benefits it would offer. The court eventually rejected the neighbors’ case, but Weinstein’s task was clear: to assuage fears that the new complex would be an alien invader.
What most people will see first, coming out of Eastern Market Metro across the street, is the office portion. It’s striking, with bands of red brick that jog in and out between two-story-tall windows, creating sharp profiles against the glass. “It’s a contemporary version of a Victorian warehouse or large office building,” Weinstein explains. She channeled her love of Victorian architecture (the style prevalent from roughly 1840 to 1900) into a form that looks up-to-date, even edgy, for a Class A urban office building in 2017.
In contrast, the five-story apartment building next to the offices, at 8th and Pennsylvania SE, is more obviously Neo-Victorian. She used textured gray-brick panels in various patterns all over its exterior walls. Some sections resemble checkerboards and others look like stacks of pennies made with lozenge-shaped bricks. In a postmodern touch, parts of the exterior bear semblance to the outlines of “blind” windows.
Weinstein says she was inspired by the decorative brick panels that grace many Victorian houses in Washington, but also by the work of Anni Albers, the German textile artist who taught in the Bauhaus, the famous hub of modernism. The Victorians were known for their eclectic tastes; if interpreting Victorian architecture through the lens of Anni Albers isn’t eclectic, I don’t know what is.
Weinstein grew up in Montgomery County and has been working as an architect in the city since 1979. She ran her own practice for years, then joined the firm of her husband, Phil Esocoff, and is now an architect with the international design firm Gensler.
Take a walk around the Hill with her, and she’ll point out little clues to a home’s Victorian pedigree. These include corbelling—bricks that are pushed out from the wall to form a raised decoration—and windows that are taller and narrower than standard windows today. “You can always tell a true Victorian by its windows,” she says.
At 700 Penn, Weinstein used a type of corbelling to form the contemporary-looking slanted piers of the office building. As a postmodernist, she isn’t trying to recreate the buildings of the past, but translate their best features to suit current materials and forms. Sometimes the allusions are lighthearted. For example, she’ll apply columns and arches to a facade without trying to make them look structural.
A common criticism of postmodern design is that it’s two-dimensional, a “flat” approach that works better on paper than in reality. But Weinstein had to solve three-dimensional challenges here, reconciling different functions on the site and harmonizing 457,000 square feet of new construction with the old rowhouses of the Hill. She modulated the height and scale of her buildings as they reach back from Pennsylvania into the residential neighborhood. A Trader Joe’s and parking spaces are tucked underground, and the loading dock is inside the belly of the complex, which means there’s no unsightly back to 700 Penn, but rather an attractive street frontage on each side.
Weinstein and the landscape architecture studio Oehme van Sweden carved out the new plaza alongside C Street SE for one of Eastern Market’s weekend flea markets.
Aesthetically, brick is what ties the various pieces of the project together. Weinstein likes brick checkerboard panels so much that, years ago, she talked a manufacturer into producing a custom “in-out” brick that allows her to create them more easily. She used the technique on the National Association of Home Care & Hospice building, which is just down the street.
Another building of hers, 660 Pennsylvania SE, faces 700 Penn directly. It’s an existing Art Moderne building she made over and gave a colorful tile-clad addition. Weinstein has also designed the renovation plan for the area across from the new complex—the park around Eastern Market Metro. When it’s built (starting next year), she will have remade three out of the four sites on that corner. District architects used to call the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW downtown “Chloethiel’s corner,” after the late architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith, who designed three buildings there. Pennsylvania and 7th SE is Amy’s corner now.
Postmodernism dominated only from the 1970s through the 1990s, and the Victorians haven’t been in fashion for a long while. Today, minimalism rules, from Apple and Uniqlo products to glass-box buildings. But there are signs that that’s changing. Other architects are suddenly using materials like glazed terracotta and copper again. People who live in airy, white-walled apartments are filling them with houseplants.
Weinstein has always followed her muse, regardless of trends; there’s a niche for everything in D.C., she says. But for all its deference to history, 700 Penn arrives looking surprisingly fresh. “I think people are getting tired of Neo-Modernism,” Weinstein says. She notes that she grew up in a midcentury-modern house—the kind many Millennials fantasize about—and her response was to rebel and go full Victorian. Maybe she isn’t out of step with the mainstream, but a step ahead of it.
This article has been updated. A previous version stated that C Street SE has been reopened. The portion of C Street in question was closed under its previous use and is still closed, but will reopen soon as part of the 700 Penn renovation.