City Paper is not for tourists
At some point in the late ’80s, the owners of the Ring Building at 18th and M Streets NW decided that their property didn’t look so good. Built in 1947, the Ring was once an A-list address, the first building in the city to provide central air conditioning. Its heyday, however, was brief. Other buildings quickly installed air-conditioning ducts of their own, and the building’s featureless architecture aged poorly. The city’s 1980s real estate boom spawned a new class of office buildings with prettier lines and nicer amenities.
“The building market was not growing any more, and we wanted to keep our tenants,” says Joan D. Hart, of Ring’s management office. “Some of the new places in the East End were offering a year’s free rent.” So the building underwent a makeover.
Now the Ring looks like a midsize Marriott that just happens to rent rooms to office workers. Its new granite base has pink diamond emblems in horizontal lines of sandstone. Its brand-new cornice takes the cheesiness to new heights, featuring the same pink diamond motif in a larger pattern. And the lobby, equipped with the standard brushed steel and black-and-white marble, looks ready for a pianist and leather lounge chairs. The building’s motifs suggest the go-go ’80s in ways that indicate that the crash can’t be far behind.
“The building wasn’t beautiful. It was a late-’40s sandstone cube. We had to upgrade,” explains Hart. Says architect Tom Eichbaum, a principal of KCF/SHG, a downtown design firm that has done its share of downtown makeovers, “It was a dumb square building.” And therein lies the rub of the current crop of D.C. makeovers: first Dumb, then Dumber.
It’s happening all over town. The Ring was “rejuvenated.” Then the American Chemical Society building. And the Brookings Institution. They’ve all had their outdated façades sliced off and recently minted street sides tacked on. Sometimes the owners spring for a new sidewalk-to-rooftop sheath; sometimes they redo just the first floor. Whatever they do, they’re using ad hoc facial flourishes to make over the city’s architectural legacy so they can breathlessly describe their buildings as “modern” and “updated,” terms that bring to mind roadside motels that are long past their prime.
The effect is pretty much the same. In the name of contemporariness, we’re getting a grab bag of faceless downtown corporate-soldier office cubes. These buildings are changing their outsides almost as often as the abodes of suburban home decorators with too much time on their handsfrom light green to light gray to light pink. It all ends up being aesthetically beige.
What was once planned obsolescence has been replaced by a new wardrobe for an old skeleton. That dull gray high-water suit got you feeling like Vice President Nixon might be spotted coming out the door? Why, just jackhammer it off, put on some pointless spangles, and you’re the new $35-per-square-foot baby at the office property cocktail party, looking to hook up with a new sugar-daddy tenant.
There is no official term for a façade change. Graham Davidson, president of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, calls them “face lifts,” which can include a new façade, a new lobby, and new infrastructurephone, heating, cooling, etc. “Most of the buildings getting them come from the city’s worst period of architecture. They’re bad imitations of third-rate buildingsonly mediocre in the first place.”
At makeover time, stupid money pours in after bad. “The face lifts are all of the same genre and are pretty monotonous,” says Davidson.
Monotonous? Hell, somebody should sue these cosmetic surgeons for malpractice and plagiarism. Buildings that pass through Makeover Central all get black-and-white marble on floors and around first-floor windows. They share oh-so-common wood lobbies, with occasional pink granite for variety’s sake. And everythingeverythingis framed and ornamented by brushed steel. Who in the hell ever decided that was a design element in the first place, a can recycler? The final standard touch is the Inevitable Awningfeaturing steel frame, glass top, and little built-in gimmicky lights. Now your building looks…just like everyone else’s.
“Lots of [the made-over buildings] look like they’ve got jewelry,” says architect Philip A. Esocoff, principal of Esocoff & Associates, who has done a few makeovers himself. “Or almost like they’re wearing braces on their teeth.”
The result, according to Eichbaum, is “just a decorated building. It doesn’t have much merit to it. It’s not trying to be one place rather than anotherit belongs no place in history.”
Each makeover patient comes out of a cosmetic booth marked “Moderne,” a style design firms use to suggest the 20th Century Limited and Ayn Rand’s empire fiction. They’re accessorized to the max in much the same way a dust-free Tyson’s Corner men’s department has bygone-era riding boots, cameras, or leather suitcases lying around to sell crisp new white collars. And they all suffer from epoch confusion, dating from the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s and made over in the ’90s with motifs that recall the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Result: architectural dada sans adventure.
“Some of them don’t really fit into any period,” says Eichbaum. He notes that most downtown buildings bear architectural styles that obsolesce quickly. “If you did a 10-year lease…and renewed it once, when it comes up a second time, you might think you’re not in an up-to-date building,” he says. “That’s coming for every building on K Street.”
Some makeovers are so thick that they conjure a whole new building. That’s what happened at the American Chemical Society building, a ’50s monolith at 16th and M Streets NW. And even though it’s a pièce de crap by any objective standard, the rehash won high praise from the Washington Post’s architectural critic, Ben Forgey. Parts of the 1994 gutter-to-chimney makeover are fairly digestible, like the chiseled gold-leaf sign in the building’s top edge and the new awning. What lies between, though, is positively scary: columns of metal cubes tacked onto the streetfront for no apparent structural or aesthetic reason. Oh, Doctor!
Instead of the simple façade that came with the building, we’ve got the only metal ice-cube tray in D.C. that people actually work init even has vertical chrome beams running between the windows and crusher-lever handles on the rooftop. It’s a shiny office-thing that would make the hometown chamber of commerce proud and grace the cover of the phone bookif it were in, say, Phoenix. History, some of it admittedly banal to begin with, is being rubbed out to no good end.
In the Oval Office, Nixon and Haldeman plotted to burn down the Brookings Institution’s building at 1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW. Not such a bad idea reallyjust a quarter-century too soon. The building’s 1960 design is so stark, so Cold War, that it could have been built on either side of the Berlin Wall. Its defining characteristic is its unadorned, absolutely unsexy façade; Brookings gets the juices flowing about as much as the cover of Foreign Affairs. At the Brookings, they don’t say “papers,” they say “dossier.”
And thenwhoaone day there’s a refurbishing, complete with first-floor makeover, trendy warm-toned wood in the lobby, big glass panels facing the street, and concrete spheres between door and driveway. Wonk Central even borrowed something straight off the Batman movie sets: a steel-girder and glass doorway canopy jutting over the driveway. It’s more D.C. Comics than District of Columbia.
The awning’s lights are particularly appalling; they look as if they’ve been lifted from a submarine thriller, ready to blink when the bridge gives the dive command and then burst when the hull pressure goes up. “Oh, you must mean the jelly-jar lights,” says Esocoff, who did the Brookings makeover. “Look, Brookings just wanted a canopy where peopleanyonecould stand out of the rain.”
Brookings colored the letters of its name, carved across the front of the façade, in gold leaf. And when the work was done and the wraps came off, Brookings unveiled a banner that encapsulates the makeover mentality: the new Brookings, “A Better Version of Itself.” It would have rung truer if it had said, “Hanging Earrings on a Pig.”
“Yeah, well, that’s OKyou don’t have to like it,” says Esocoff. That’s the spirit: If you don’t like that one, I got a million more where it came from. “Do you have my name spelled right?” he adds helpfully at the end of the conversation.
The makeovers turn downtown into a tawdry, manufactured postmodern tableau, one that is architectural but not architecture. And it’s been going on long enough to have defaced much of what is sui generis about Washington. The AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. names the 1940 Longfellow Building, at Rhode Island and Connecticut Avenues (now 1201 Connecticut), as one of the two most noteworthy architectural developments in the District since 1940. Antoinette J. Lee, co-author of Buildings of the District of Columbia, called the Longfellow (which was designed by the Swiss-born William Lescaze) “revolutionary.” But in the ’80s, she noted, it was “ruthlessly disfigured by developers, who frosted it with a pink Postmodern glaze.”
“Altered beyond recognition” is how the AIA Guide’s authors classified it; they dropped it from a profile slot in their third edition. But the building still stands.
“It was the first example in Washington of true, good-quality International Style,” says AIA’s Davidson. “It got a face lift in the mid-’80s, and now that’s already out of fashion. By the year 2005, they’ll seriously consider another one.”CP