City Paper is not for tourists
At first glance, the Potomac Place Apartments don’t look like much of a historic landmark. The nine-story building is as plain as they come, a rectangular high-rise stretching nearly the entire length of 4th Street SW between I and G Streets. Columns on the ground floor surround a lobby with large windows that allow you to see a small park and a row of town houses beyond, and terra-cotta panels screen the continuous balconies that cover two sides of the building. But these unusual details don’t leap out at you: Potomac Place could belong anywhere. Even its name fails to convey much of a sense of place.
A closer look, though, and Potomac Place neatly encapsulates the history of Southwest Washington. Originally called Capitol Park Apartments, the building was constructed in 1959 as part of a larger complex called Capitol Park. It was the first structure in Southwest built in the name of postwar urban renewal. The goal of the project was to replace slums with cleaner, safer, middle-income neighborhoods.
Over the years, the Capitol Park area has slowly evolved into a very desirable neighborhood where town houses now fetch close to a half-million dollars. But the renewal process also cleared 560 acres and displaced more than 22,000 people. And though the clean modernist lines of Potomac Park initially seemed like an improvement over the jumble of alley dwellings and row houses it replaced, within 20 years many had begun to deride the boxy apartment complex as impersonal and lifeless.
Richard Westbrook was one of the first residents to settle in the new Southwest. In 1963, he moved into a town house close to the Capitol Park Apartments. Even then, he had been following the progress of Southwest redevelopment for some time, albeit from a distance. As a young urban planner working for Arlington County, Westbrook shot some of the earliest photographic slides of the Capitol Park Apartments and its adjacent town houses. The relationship between the high-rise and low-rise structures “was significant for zoning cases in Arlington,” Westbrook recalls. “We were dealing with a lot of cases of high-rises being built to the detriment of two-story homes. [Capitol Park] was an example of how to do it right.”
Since then, Westbrook has married and divorced, raised a family, and spent 20 years working as a site-plan reviewer for the National Capital Planning Commission. He retired from urban planning in 1996.
Last fall, when Westbrook first heard rumors that D.C.-based developer Monument Realty planned to erect new apartment buildings on the Potomac Place property, his first instinct was to seek out the site plans. When he got hold of them, in November, he didn’t like what he saw: Monument proposed constructing two T-shaped, six-story buildings on the site of the park that now separates Potomac Place from a set of two-story town houses. (Monument officials declined to comment for this story.)
“[The site plan] was so disastrous that I was almost flabbergasted,” Westbrook recalls. “I’ve been in urban planning for 40 years. I’ve reviewed so many site plans. I looked at this and I said, ‘You’re depreciating your own property by blocking views to the east of the Capitol.’”
What bothered Westbrook more, however, is that the plan would obliterate the park. The green space, he argues, is integral to the layout of Capitol Park. And though many preservationists have made careers out of fighting such urban-renewal projects, Capitol Park, Westbrook decided, is worth saving.
“I saw those plans,” he says, “and I said, ‘We have to stop this.’”
Westbrook found allies among his neighbors. But Monument, which acquired Potomac Place last year from the National Capital Revitalization Corp., owns the land it plans to develop. To get Monument to alter its plans, Westbrook and his compatriots decided to try to get the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to designate Potomac Place as a historic landmark.
“I feel that [Potomac Place] should have landmark status and even National Register status,” says Westbrook. “It’s an example of a real sea change in the way this country [approached] the renewal of its inner-city residential neighborhoods.”
Westbrook says that before urban renewal, the federal government’s approach to clearing slums was to build public-housing projects such as the James Creek Dwellings, which are a few blocks away from Potomac Place. With the passage of the 1945 D.C. Redevelopment Act, however, Uncle Sam embarked for the first time on the wholesale clearance of neighborhoods and relocation of families in the name of revitalizing inner cities. In Westbrook’s mind, that makes Southwest’s urban renewal as much an urban-planning watershed moment as the greenbelt cities that were built before World War II.
Supporters of landmark status argue that Potomac Place’s importance was validated by no less a figure than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In September 1959, visiting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took note of some shabby buildings as he and Eisenhower drove down South Capitol Street. So Eisenhower took him to the Capitol Park Apartments, then under construction, to show him what was being done to revitalize the area.
Another event cited as evidence of Potomac Place’s historical significance is the 1954 Supreme Court decision Berman v. Parker. Berman was a 4th Street SW store owner who refused to move. His fight with the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency went straight to the Supreme Court, which issued a ruling giving local governments the right to tear down an old building to improve a neighborhood. “It allowed jurisdictions across the country to renew their cities,” says Westbrook.
In addition, preservationists argue, Capitol Park represents the early work of an important architect: Chloethiel Woodard Smith, who eventually became one of the most influential modernist architects working in Washington. Other examples of her work are the Harbour Square Apartment Towers in Southwest, the National Airport Metro Station, and three of the four office buildings on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NWknown among local architects as “Chloethiel’s Corner.”
At Capitol Park, Westbrook notes, Smith came up with apartment-design innovations that were later widely copied: the mix of high- and low-rise buildings, the extensive use of balconies, and the placement of buildings within a carefully landscaped space. She worked closely with landscape architect Dan Kiley, who went on to design the grounds of the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing, Washington Dulles International Airport, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Kiley is widely considered the dean of American landscape architecture; in 2002, he won a lifetime-achievement award from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
In Capitol Park, Kiley and Smith created what Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University’s historic-preservation program, calls “a subtle hierarchy of public and private spaces.”
Indeed, if you stroll through Potomac Place, you’ll see that the park behind the apartment building gives way to smaller courtyards and individual gardens by the town houses. Until recently, the park contained trees, grass, flagstone paving, and a pavilion supported by thin white columns that rose out of a small reflecting pool. Inside the pavilion was a raised hearth and a colorful glass-tile mural by award-winning children’s book author Leo Lionni.
The recent work at Potomac Park, however, has devastated Kiley’s landscape. By the time Westbrook and his supporters convinced the nonprofit D.C. Preservation League to help them file for landmark status for Potomac Place in January, Monument had a permit to clear the site.
After breaking ground in March, Monument’s contractors quickly cut down most of the trees, tilled out the grass, and ripped out all the flagstones. Last week, just days before the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board heard the Potomac Place case, workers at the site took a jackhammer to the reflecting pool. All that remains now is a pile of rubble.
Ironically, it is Kiley’s landscaping, not Smith’s architecture, that has held up better in the eyes of most critics. At the April 24 designation hearing, Monument Senior Vice President Russell Hines complained that the ugliness of the buildings regularly drives away potential renters. Even Westbrook concedes that Potomac Place is not necessarily Smith’s strongest work. “I don’t think [the architecture] is any great shakes,” he says. “She did much better at Harbour Square.”
In this case, though, Westbrook argues that aesthetics should take a back seat to history. “It’s not the architecture, and it’s not the landscape architecture. It’s the process of urban renewal that this country has been going through for 100 years.”
Looks, however, do matter when it comes to designating a landmark. One of the criteria the Historic Preservation Review Board considers is a site’s integrity. And at the designation hearing, the condition of the site became a major issue of debate.
At the hearing, Hines passed around photos of the nearly demolished park, arguing that there simply wasn’t much left to preserve. Supporters of landmark designation countered that trees could be replanted, grass relaid, and the pool rebuilt. Most important, they said, the apartment building, which is the majority of the site, is still there.
In response, Hines suggested that saving or restoring Potomac Place didn’t make much sense: The legacy of urban renewal, he argued, is simply not worth preserving. “Instead of preserving failure, we should be encouraging improvements,” he said, citing urban renewal’s critical reception among design pros. He quoted former Smithsonian senior architectural historian Mina Marefat, who once wrote that urban renewal and its architecture represent “the failure of modernism.” “That’s a typical response to this type of architecture from the design community and from laymen alike,” Hines said.
In the end, however, the Historic Preservation Review Board agreed with Westbrook and his neighbors, voting overwhelmingly to designate Potomac Place and what’s left of its park as historic. The next day, the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation issued a stop-work order for the pavilion. Red tape now encircles the delicate-looking structure and its mural, keeping the jackhammers at bay.
For how long, though, Westbrook isn’t sure. Although he’s ecstatic over the landmark designation, he worries about what will happen next. At the hearing, Monument officials made it clear that they’ll be moving forward with plans to erect the building on the north side of the lot while they appeal the review board’s decisionafter all, they argue, they have a valid permit to do so. They also said that if they stopped work now, they would lose $12 million that they’ve already invested in the $50 million project.
Several of Westbrook’s neighbors are keen on making all of Capitol Park a historic district so they’ll have more control over any future development. Westbrook says he’s staying out of that fight for now. At the moment, he’s focused on improving the Waterside Mall, another one of the neighborhood structures slated for redevelopment.
“People are still panning urban renewal,” Westbrook says. “But the architecture is such a composite of a little of this, a little of that. It’s a wonderful place to live.” CP