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Wallace Mlyniec, the Lupo-Ricci Professor of Clinical Legal Studies at Georgetown Law School, has devoted his career to defending the rights of young people accused of crimes. He led Georgetown’s Juvenile Justice Clinic for four decades, receiving prestigious awards for his work.
But there’s another side to 71-year-old Mlyniec: He is fascinated by everything to do with buildings. Over the years, as he mentored future attorneys, Mlyniec (pronounced “Milenick”) accrued a vast knowledge of architecture, construction, and Washington lore on the side.
He shares this knowledge in “Construction Notes,” updates about buildings-in-progress that have become cult reading material. The typical note might run eight or 10 pages. It starts with a status report on a construction project on or near the Georgetown Law campus and warnings about noise or other disruptions. Then it plunges into the mechanics of a building technique or a colorful episode in D.C. history. There are lots of links and images and usually a short bibliography at the end. Sometimes research assistants help Mlyniec compile the information.
Between Georgetown students, staff, and Mlyniec’s personal friends, close to 3,000 people receive Construction Notes by email (they’re also posted online). Each one has a title and a theme. Not tempted by “Swamps and Sewers?” Try “Caissons and Slurry Walls.” Then chase it with “Caissons and Slurry Walls II.”
Although his writing is full of technical arcana, Mlyniec doesn’t get bogged down in that. He ranges across centuries and continents in his descriptions of how pile drivers work or why builders celebrate “topping off” a new structure (answer: the tradition comes from ancient tree-topping ceremonies to appease the gods).
“He has this uncanny knack for pursuing a question in a way that is just so interesting,” says Judith Areen, a Georgetown Law professor and the school’s former dean. “I can still remember one of his early notes on concrete. Who ever thought about concrete? He went back to how it was developed in ancient times.”
Mlyniec, who lives on Capitol Hill, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He remembers taking the L downtown as a boy to look at buildings. (“If you grow up in Chicago, you can’t ignore the architecture around you.”) He went to college at Northwestern and watched as workers filled in a lake for a campus expansion. But he put that interest on hold as he embarked on law school at Georgetown and then an academic career.
In 1973, Georgetown Law hired him as its first-ever clinical instructor. Two years earlier, the small school had moved into a building, McDonough Hall, off New Jersey Avenue NW, in a neighborhood east of downtown that all but the Salvation Army and flophouse hotels deserted. (The Georgetown Law Center is separate from the undergraduate campus, and not in Georgetown at all.)
The school grew, and before long, McDonough was overcrowded. Mlyniec joined the committee to plan for a larger campus. His interest in buildings was renewed.
At first, he channeled it into professional validation. This was the era when the legal establishment sniffed at clinical law as intellectually unserious, hippie do-gooderism. Clinical faculty were working in spillover space off-campus. Mlyniec realized they needed to be on campus to win respect. “The law school would not accept clinical faculty unless they could see us,” he says. (By 1989, his clinic had settled into an expanded McDonough Hall.)
Mlyniec had a big hand in the campus that grew around him, becoming the law school’s point person for architects and construction managers. “I think in another life, he would have become an architect,” Areen says. He started writing Construction Notes in 2002, chronicling the build-out of the school’s international law and sports centers.
Originally, the idea was simply to alert people to inconveniences during construction. There was going to be noise early in the morning, and students and professors would be annoyed. “In order to keep a lid on the complaints, I thought this was a good idea,” he recalls.
So he started writing. “Everything just exploded after that,” he says. “I couldn’t put my pen down.”
As the notes became more ambitious, people from as far afield as Indiana and California asked to be added to his mailing list. In 2006, a small press managed by one of Mlyniec’s friends published a collection of the notes as a book. Mlyniec describes this period as probably the happiest years of his life.
Building the two campus centers was a major enterprise. But those structures seem like baubles compared to Capitol Crossing, the current $1.3 billion project to erect a seven-acre deck over a sunken stretch of I-395 between 2nd and 3rd Streets NW, from Massachusetts Avenue to E Street, reconnecting the divided East End neighborhood.
Years ago, craving a hands-on role with a major infrastructure project, Mlyniec tried unsuccessfully to embed himself with the team building the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Then Capitol Crossing came along—a perfect fit. Mlyniec is Georgetown Law’s liaison with the developers and the city on the megaproject, which won’t be finished until at least 2021.
He has written more than 20 notes on Capitol Crossing, touching on the geology of the Atlantic Coastal Plain; the life of 19th-century Washington politico Alexander “Boss” Shepherd; the invention of the steam-driven steel hammer; and much more.
One note explains that the I-395 ditch next to campus is a remnant of the postwar Center Leg Freeway, which displaced 1,600 residents but was abandoned partway through. Another retraces the journey made by the steel girders that will support the Capitol Crossing deck: from a mill in North Carolina, to a flatbed truck, to a crane, and finally onto columns over the roadway.
Carole Wedge, president of Shepley Bulfinch, the Boston architecture firm that designed Georgetown’s international law and sports centers, says she always learns new things from the notes. When they worked together, Wedge was so impressed by Mlyniec (“his inquisitiveness is really quite remarkable”) that she hired him as a consultant, and he advised on the design of a law school building at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
If you visit Mlyniec on the Georgetown Law campus, he’ll take you to the top of Gewirz Residence Hall, where you can look down on Capitol Crossing. It’s an incredible vista of labor: cranes, backhoes, stacks of lumber and pipes, and workers in fluorescent vests crawling over the site like ants. Not everyone geeks out to this stuff the way Mlyniec does. But his writing unlocks what is easy to forget as we go about our daily routines—that modern city building is pretty awe-inspiring.
“Unless you practice construction or real estate law, you will probably never have a chance to view a project as massive as this so close up,” Mlyniec told readers in a 2015 note, “Pile Driving and Lagging Boards.” “I encourage you to take a few minutes … to step outside and watch the work. This combination of human labor, machinery, and technology shows us the immense capacity of the human imagination.”