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Fourteen years into its career in Washington, the architecture firm of Eric Colbert & Associates found what’s likely to be its final resting place: The former St. Mary’s School for Girls, a handsome, symmetrical brick building a block from the hulking Verizon Center on 5th Street NW. There’s nothing on the front to indicate who works there, not even a small sign. This is a set of designers who like to blend into the background.
The interior, though, is pretty special. The firm designed its own space, and it’s like something out of an art magazine: A single open room with polished but creaky hardwood floors, a three-story high ceiling, and light pouring in through tall windows. A massive painting with generous use of gold leaf hangs on the far wall. The workspaces are separated from the central corridor by high white walls, but these are no typical office cubes: Most desks have sightlines to the rest, so their inhabitants can yell across the room to a coworker. (Not that they do. The space is usually deathly quiet.)
Colbert himself has an office two flights up, in a cozy space that feels like an attic. To check in on his underlings on the main floor, he need only walk over to a low wall, stepping gingerly on a stack of blueprints on the floor. “I try not to make too many speeches,” he jokes.
The firm moved into the old school 16 years ago. Since then, shiny Colbert buildings have cropped up all over the city’s most desirable central neighborhoods, from Adams Morgan to Dupont Circle to Chinatown. He got a good chunk of the last condo boom, between 2004 and 2007, and has cleaned up even more of the work in the latest apartment-building bonanza, fueled in D.C. by the health of the federal government while real estate markets around the country languished. Right now, Colbert & Associates is responsible for four projects underway around the 14th and U streets NW corridor, two on Georgia Avenue NW, and others in Southwest, NoMa, and Shaw. At this point, he’s designed enough buildings along the city’s spine of gentrification that Elinor Bacon, a member of the Historic Preservation Review Board, called him “the architectural god of 14th Street,” in a hearing about a new building that will replace a squat post office and Chinese takeout place (right before she lamented that the project “just didn’t have that Colbert magic”).
Many of D.C.’s neighborhoods, built in fits and spurts as the city’s grid spread, are epigraphs to residential developers who took one marketable product and replicated it again and again: Harry Wardman is responsible for large tracts in Columbia Heights and Bloomingdale, Robert Fleming for pieces of Dupont, and Charles Gessford for blocks of Capitol Hill.
More than anyone else in the market right now, Colbert is that guy for the urbanite, upwardly mobile, design-conscious but not excessively artsy D.C. denizen. He designs for people who make up the 23 percent increase in 20- to 34-year-olds living here since 2000.
The big names of D.C.’s architectural past all had distinct styles. You don’t have to be a trained historian to spot their signatures: Wardman’s front porches, Gessford’s attic pediments. Colbert, on the other hand, prides himself on fitting in—an odd boast for a designer, who might presumably seek to stand out. But this explains why Colbert is so sought after: To actually get anything done in 21st-century D.C., it’s a lot easier to just copy what’s around you.
Colbert’s success is in part a story about Washington’s politics and regulations. This is a city, after all, where hyper-empowered neighborhood associations and appointed boards feel entitled to a say over the size and look of new developments. (Since the historic fabric of the city is so strong already, deviations from that standard are seen as insults.) Colbert, whose 50-odd projects include a few excellent buildings and far more that are just good enough, is the architect we deserve.
Like many D.C. residents outside the federal orbit, Colbert arrived in the District by accident.
He grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., wanting to be an artist. However, advised by elders that that was a good way to go hungry and pulled in a more technical direction by his engineering-professor father, Colbert settled on architecture as a compromise. Then, as now, the Shangri-La for ambitious young architects was New York City, and Colbert says he’d always planned to end up there. A visit to a friend in the District in the 1970s, though, prompted him to give another city a try.
“D.C. looked like a fun place, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just spend a few years here,’” says Colbert, whose deep voice often breaks into a resounding laugh at the end of his sentences. “And then I came down here and never moved.”
Very quickly, the young Colbert got a taste of the D.C. architecture scene’s famed conservatism. He went to work for Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates, the firm responsible for massive projects like Washington Harbour and the restoration of the Cairo Hotel; Colbert worked on overhauling the Old Post Office. “I asked somebody what it was like working there, and they said, ‘I don’t really know, but I know you have to wear a tie,’” Colbert remembers. “And that kind of summarizes D.C. culture.” Stylistically, it still does, even though few architects dress formally anymore.
Colbert spent only three years in Moore’s shop before breaking off on his own in 1981. Maurice Rosenblatt—the well-known Democratic lobbyist who brought down Senator Joe McCarthy—asked him to plan him a second home in Virginia. It was the winter of design in Washington: There was no money for new residential construction, so after Rosenblatt’s mansion, Colbert busied himself on renovations of boxy brick apartment complexes east of the Anacostia River. It was no glamorous way to make a living.
“That was really hard work, because there really wasn’t much design potential,” Colbert says. “Most of it was going through the houses, and say new light switch, unit 217, replace doorknob, that kind of thing.”
When the District’s housing market bloomed enough to allow renovations of higher-end buildings and even entirely new ones in the ’90s, Colbert started moving into the real world of design. His deep knowledge of D.C. neighborhoods—stemming from his position on the task force that rewrote D.C.’s building codes to ease renovations in the 1980s—set him up to catch a trickle of new projects when the money spigot finally turned on.
Local developer Giorgio Furioso, an Italian expatriate who considers himself a student of art and architecture, remembers meeting Colbert when he worked near the architect’s office in an industrial warehouse on 10th Street NE. “I’d see this lonely light on at night and wondered, who’s in that storage space?” Furioso says, in admiration of the architect’s work ethic.
Furioso asked Colbert to work on his first project, the renovation of an old schoolhouse at 4th and M streets NW into artist live-work spaces (Colbert then bought the unit Furioso had lived in earlier). In 1998, the duo took a ’60s-era monstrosity on 16th and Church streets NW and festooned it with glassy bays and colorfully painted steel beams, including one that pokes into the sky. To this day, it’s of the most playful façades on an avenue not known for whimsy.
In the mid-’00s, the money trickle turned into a flood. Entire blocks of the city’s core were built on or redeveloped. During that period, Colbert pumped out buildings with names like the Matrix, the Icon, and the Sonata, as developers cashed in on the District’s new cool.
Now, Colbert lives in a traditional brick house on Fessenden Street NW, which he says he bought mostly for the garage that houses several whitewater kayaks. He gets out on the Potomac River about four days a week, and goes farther afield as often as possible. Kayaking and work are Colbert’s primary occupations. Having no spouse or kids, he’s almost always the one to make presentations at evening meetings, and still seems excited about the day-to-day grind. “I’m not a big marketing person. I’m not out playing golf with the clients,” he says. “I’m here every day. I get up in the morning. I can’t wait to get to the office.”
The last few years, unsurprisingly, have been tough on the firm. Eric Colbert & Associates shrank by some 25 percent through attrition and layoffs. But that’s a better fate than that of many companies that hire architects. Several minor developers died off entirely during the bust that followed the financial crisis, and some bigger developers went into a state of suspended animation.
Luckily for local real estate types, the market here never flatlined the way it did in other parts of the country. Now, things are nearly back to the highs of 2004. Firms that survived the plunge have money again, but it’s a more careful kind of money. They are less willing to spend on design flourishes, and hesitant to take a risk on a design the market might reject.
Colbert, now with three decades of experience and dozens of successful projects behind him—including neighborhood focal points like the Hudson across from Whole Foods on P Street NW and the Adams Morgan Lofts on 18th Street NW—is the careful money’s architect of choice.
“I’d like to think that I was like a genius, but the reality is that there is a lot of what happened that was just kind of me being in the right place at the right time,” he says.
D.C.’s neighborhoods have a robust cast of architectural characters, and they’ve all staked out their turf.
Phil Esocoff does luxury single residential buildings, including those wavy brick façades on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Shalom Baranes, also on the higher end of the prestige scale, takes on more complex multi-building projects. Torti Gallas specializes in urban design, and gets a number of city-subsidized developments. Bonstra Haresign is behind smaller, boutique condo buildings.
In Washington, where knowing local zoning codes and historic districts saves time and angst, hiring an architect remains a model of shopping locally. With the exception of Georgetown-based Eastbanc and local heavyweight JBG, who are willing to spend a bit more on a name-brand architect from out of town, most developers have a stable of local architects and rotate through them. “It’s a small town feel to it, and nobody likes outsiders,” says Four Points Development’s Stan Voudrie, who retained Colbert for his Progression Place project in Shaw. “D.C.’s a little bit of a closed loop.”
What’s Colbert’s competitive advantage? In large part, it’s that Colbert isn’t just an architect. He’s a development partner through all stages of a project, from conception to interior design to city review processes to working with contractors through the mundane details of construction—which a snootier designer might consider beneath him.
“I think why people appreciate us is just value,” Colbert explains. “We’re not the cheapest people in town by a long shot, but we really work hard, and construction is just fraught with problems.”
Colbert is also a familiar presence at hearings before the Historic Preservation Review Board and meetings of local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and knows their various expectations and quirks. Even though a project architect might have done most of the work, Colbert will always be the firm’s public face—he’s the brand that people trust, after all, and remaining poised through their interrogations is a special skill. “It’s like Miles Davis said,” Colbert says. “The notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do play.”
That aplomb was on display at a meeting in September addressing a new building that was to replace an empty lot at 17th and O streets NW. As is standard in D.C., the design had come under fire from neighbors who worried that noisy 20-somethings would hold rowdy parties on the roof, add congestion to surrounding streets, and generally disrupt their peaceful existence. But an ANC 2B commissioner, who had worked with Colbert on previous projects, introduced him with affection. Colbert then ran through his presentation: The new building would mimic the surrounding art deco architecture in a way that’s impossible to accuse of “incompatibility.” When the neighbors started asking aggressive questions, he patiently explained the many changes that had already been made to accommodate them. Ultimately, the project cleared the ANC with little hassle.
Even when accidents happen in the community process, Colbert will scramble to fix them. This summer, Level2 Development thought it could breathe easy after ANC 1B signed off on an apartment project for 14th Street that loomed up a sheer 70 feet from Wallach Place, the cross street. But neighbors got wind of the approval, and backlash was instantaneous. Residents termed the development “WallachZilla” and sniped that Colbert was bringing in the “Late Ballston School of architecture.” (They complained of blandness, although the bigger objection was sheer bigness.) The Historic Preservation Review Board backed up their concerns, forcing Colbert and the developer back to the drafting table.
Colbert et al came back with a building that was10 units smaller and dramatically set back from the street. That was enough to placate the critics and send the project on its way, even if the city had lost out on the benefits 10 more residents would bring. “When he set up his easel, it was like ‘Wow, you really sharpened your pencil, Eric. You brought us a much nicer design,” says protestor-in-chief Craig Brownstein. “We left there with a bounce in our step, pretty much convinced that we were looking at a much better building.” (It may have been better in size, from the neighbors’ perspective, but the architecture is no less bland.)
The quick redo is part of a Washington architect’s job description. Although Colbert pays his project architects by the hour—meaning that they’re not asked to put in infinite overtime with no pay, which is common in the industry—the firm often gets compensated for getting a project through the entitlement process, meaning there’s no check until the votes go the right way.
Colbert also redrafts for less money than other firms might. Developers like to peg an architect’s fee between three and four percent of a building’s total development cost, and Colbert comes in on the low end (he declined to say how much he makes on a yearly basis, but speculated that the spread between his salary and his employees’ is less than that of other firms). “He’s a cost-competitive guy,” says David Haresign, whose firm directly competes with Colbert. “If they’re pricing on fee, they might pick him and not us.”
Often, though, developers won’t even invite proposals from other designers, preferring to go with Colbert from the beginning. The traditionalist apartment owner and manager Keener Squire, for example, works with Colbert almost exclusively. Another developer doesn’t even have any sites in D.C. currently, but was confident that when they did, Colbert would design the building. “I would say there is a high likelihood that we would likely go to him,” she says, asking to remain anonymous.
In a world where almost everything is put out to bid to ensure you’re getting as much as possible for your money, that says quite a bit.
Having your name on an architecture firm doesn’t mean you design every building. Colbert will usually hash out a concept with one of his 16 project architects, and then set them free to sort out the details. “As long as they’re consistent with my overall vision for what I want in the firm,” Colbert says.
What is that vision, exactly? Colbert hesitates for a few seconds before answering.
“It has to make sense,” he says finally. “I don’t want it to be boring. But on the other hand, I don’t want to put ornamentation on a building that doesn’t have some practical foundation. It’s hard for me to explain, but some buildings seem to be just kind of swoopy, just for the hell of it. And we don’t have the luxury or the desire to do that.”
The question is so hard to answer because Colbert is a chameleon. He works with whatever architectural palette surrounds the building, whether that’s warehouse chic or the Asian motifs of Chinatown, to produce the least offensive structure possible. It’s what most clients want, after all.
“We try and make it architecturally contextual with the neighborhood, so that it fits in pretty seamlessly,” says Rita Bamberger, senior vice president with the Holladay Corporation. “You don’t want to replicate the architecture, but you want to have it blend in.”
That ability often has graceful results, as with projects on and near 14th Street that pay homage to the corridor’s history of airy auto showrooms. Sometimes, the outcome is a heavy-handed attempt at some sense of historicity. The Spencer at 15th and O streets NW, where enormous ornamental roof appendages and heavy, white-painted arch over the entryway, seems like a bid to compensate for a lack of actual detailing. And the Avalon Bay Gallery Place, across the street from Colbert’s office, sports an awkward mix of non-structural columns embedded in brick.
Washington’s regulatory structure being what it is, though, design that fades into the background is almost imperative for viability. Even Furioso, who wanted something daringly abstract for an office project on 14th Street, went to Colbert for a toned-down design after he couldn’t get financing for the original iteration by Sorg Architects. (The latter also ran into resistance from the Historic Preservation Office.) The new Colbert design, with its edges at predictable right angles, will break ground this year.
Clients also like that Colbert doesn’t quibble when they ask him to recast his vision. “He has very little ego,” says Michael Korns of Keener Squire, which retained Colbert for the boring-but-palatable Gatsby at 15th and O streets NW and the Regent on 16th and R streets NW. “If he says, ‘I think you should do this,’ and we say, ‘We think you should do that,’ he says, ‘OK, you’re the client.’ He has lots of good ideas, but he also doesn’t push it when we want to do something that he doesn’t agree with.”
Still, Colbert’s designs are vastly better than the featureless office and apartment blocks typical of the time he arrived in Washington. His own inspiration is Richard Meier, whose buildings are clean, airy, and starkly white. And he thinks that D.C.’s taste might be liberalizing.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say our clients didn’t have some influence over the design input of a building,” he says. “But as we evolve as a firm, I think that our clients are willing to give us a little more freedom than they might have originally. And part of that is they see that the market is being tested, and people are willing to rent buildings that have a more contemporary look, and that allows people to have a little more flexibility.”
If you want to see Colbert unleashed, give him a site that lacks context entirely—and is also removed from main thoroughfares, with their constant traffic of potential detractors. Colbert says the firm’s most experimental building is the pastel-colored Floridian, on 9th Street north of U, which looms like an alien over empty lots and abandoned warehouses where other buildings were supposed to rise and never did. There, with only U Street’s jazz heritage to work from, Colbert conjured a Mondrian-esque patchwork of green and yellow panels with projecting, glassy bays that seem to float in space. It’s engendered its share of neighborhood grumbling—but at least it made people feel something, rather than just a sense of satisfied acceptance.
If there is a Colbertian imprint, it’s probably most evident at the Allegro, on 14th Street in north Columbia Heights. He says that four-story building, with its horizontal and vertical beams framing balconies and first floor retail spaces, typifies an “emerging style” that’s also visible in the vaguely industrial Adams Morgan Lofts and Northwest One on M Street NE. There are other features that show up again and again, like vertical ribbons of bay windows and decorative circular crowns on the apexes of corners. It’s a form of shorthand: This building is stylish enough to be worthy of your station, but not too expensive for you to afford.
You’ve seen Colbert’s work if you’ve been up and down 14th Street. It’s the expensive condos or high-end rentals, designed to look like old warehouses turned into lofts, even if many of them were built that way from the ground up. You may not remember precisely what they look like, though. They form a background blur in neighborhoods where much of Colbert’s work is clustered, blending together quietly in the mind of people walking down the street—just the way the neighbors, developers, and bankers intended.
Financiers knew such condos would sell, because the ones down the block that looked the same had sold. Developers knew they’d get past the various review boards and ANC meetings, because the one they put up a couple years before had. Even more than the start-to-finish hand-holding and the willingness to attend meetings and answer questions from angry neighbors, that’s what you get when you hire Colbert & Associates: Something you know will work. You might call them the architectural equivalent of the standby Washington uniform of khakis and a blue blazer, even if a handful might qualify as a Banana Republic suit.
Colbert is now a major influence on entire neighborhoods, not just individual blocks. Nowhere is this truer than greater 14th Street, where Elinor Bacon had accorded him the status of the Creator. But unlike his more imperialistic architectural predecessors, who knew they’d get to design large chunks of the city at once (and often had their own money in the deal), Colbert doesn’t think about leaving an imprint on the built environments he’s played a huge part in shaping.
“You know, it’s hard, because each project comes to us individually, with a different client, a different set of neighbors,” he says, when I ask whether he thinks about molding a place like 14th and U. “We really look at the block. It never occurred to me that we would be doing four projects on 14th Street, with potentially two more in the wings. So it wasn’t possible to know in advance, and say, ‘This is how I’m going to shape 14th Street.”
“Not that I would want to be that controlling,” he adds.