There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
From the minute Amy Weinstein steps out of her weathered, messy Volvo station wagon and into the Eastern Market pavilion, people start to recognize her. After personal greetings from everyone from a flower vendor to the manager of the Bread and Chocolate building, you’d think Weinstein was a famous politician. In her mismatched herringbone jacket and skirt, she’s not quite flashy enough to be a rock star. But as she strolls down this block of Capitol Hill, Weinstein carries a certain air of ownership about heras well she should. This petite and unassuming woman practically built this block.
Weinstein has designed three of the most prominent buildings on the Eastern Market strip, including the three-story office building on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street SE. With these three buildings and a handful of others, Weinstein has shaped the modern face of Capitol Hill perhaps more than any other local architect, making her one of the most prominent local women in the profession. She has been acclaimed for her ability to find a satisfying answer to a question that perplexes the country’s oldest cities: How do you graft new onto old in a way that respects the past without ignoring the future?
“Buildings exist in our psyches in a variety of perspectives,” she says, explaining that she strives to design modern buildings that complement their surroundings rather than overwhelming them. “A building has to work close up and from aerial photos and [at] all the levels in between.” To achieve that goal, Weinstein’s favored medium is brick, a building material common in D.C.’s Victorian housing stock. She has updated the old design by modeling brick patterns on the bright, vivid colors of tapestries and other weavings. It’s an odd look for an office building, perhaps just because it’s new, but for the most part critics rave about it.
The only exception has been her most recent creation on 7th Street, the National Association for Home Care, across from Eastern Market. The building is characteristic of Weinstein’s other Hill projects, only it looks bigger. Its red brick incorporates some of the features of the historic Eastern Market, but it’s embellished with a few additional modern details done in steel. Inside, the narrow lobby is a colorful maze of painted columns leading back to the elevatorno corporate mauve and gray here. Weinstein says she picked a color scheme of off-yellow and shades of red and blue that the Victorians would have appreciated. “I love the Victorians,” she says. “They were wonderfully eccentric.”
The building was originally designed to house stores on the first floor, but when the project was finally completed, the association had grown so much it needed the space for offices. Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgeyusually a huge Weinstein fandissed the building in his Cityscape column a few weeks back, calling the building “too loud, too strong, too big for its britches.” In reference to the façade’s postmodern steel I-beams, he said, “It’s so naughty! And, alas, so stale.”
Weinstein takes the criticism in stride and jokingly quotes Frank Lloyd Wright: “Doctors can bury their mistakes. All architects can do is plant ivy.” She notes that architects frequently need to reject one wave of design in order to welcome in the new. “Criticism is part of the whole profession.”
A native of the area, Weinstein was born and raised in Somerset, Md., just over the District line. Her father, Jesse Weinstein, is also an architect; he worked in the District for many years. Weinstein worked for his D.C. firm, Abel & Weinstein Associates, early in her career. “I’m a D.C. resident and proud of it,” she says.
In some ways, Washington has shaped Weinstein’s work as much as her work has shaped Washington. She says designing for the District is somewhat different from working in other places. Not only does it have height limitations, but “our streets are enormously wide. What you’re designing for people to see is very different.” Washington also has the distinction, she says, of having been planned before it was built.
Along with those strictures, Weinstein says that making a functional building beautiful is a lot more complicated than it used to be. “It’s a very complex, interrelated thing to make a building these days,” she says.
There are still the usual concerns about structural integrity and the like, but a new building in this city must also meet the needs of a lot more people than just those who will inhabit it. There’s the U.S. Fine Arts Commission and the D.C. Board of Historic Preservation, myriad citizens’ groups, and any number of other government agencies that all have a say in how new buildings go up in the District.
As a result, Weinstein hasn’t had the luxury of designing solely as she pleases. Instead, for practical reasons as well as artistic, she’s had to become a student of history, psychology, and sociologyand, of course, politicsto help secure the freedom to create her work. Her office library includes a copy of Dream City, Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe’s book on Marion Barry. “I have my own Washingtoniana collection,” says Weinstein. “Architects’ responsibilities have really expandedand quite rapidlyin the last 20 years.”
Along with the Washington influence on her work, Weinstein’s buildings reflect the tutelage of Robert Venturi, for whom she worked after getting her master of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976. Famous for having turned the profession on its head with his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venturi spurned the New Brutalists and the “aesthetics of ugliness” of modernists who sought to strip away all ornamentation and make buildings intentionally ugly and ordinary. He argued that the lessons of history should not be completely abandoned and sought to soften some of the more severe designs of his time.
Venturi is responsible for some large projects here in D.C., including Freedom Plaza and the Department of Transportation building at L’Enfant Plaza. But Weinstein’s work reflects more Venturi’s later work, such as Wu Hall at Princeton University, which has colorful brick patterns that resemble the new wing she designed for the Hospital for Sick Children. She says her 10-member firm recognizes that there is a place for ornamentation in American building design. She cites a study from which architects learned that even if Americans move into bare-bones residences stripped of all garnishments, they’ll add things here and therethe famous pink flamingo, for instanceto make them homey.
While the postmodernists went a little overboard with the idea, tacking rococo fixtures onto the same old blocky modern office buildings, Weinstein’s designs have managed to incorporate ornament into spare modern designs without too much kitsch. Since opening her own firm in 1982, Weinstein has designed several prominent buildings on the Hill, including the new Democratic Leadership Council building on Stanton Circle. She also did the building renovations for the Massachusetts Avenue restaurant 2 Quail and the nearby U.S. Senate Page Dormitory, which is a renovated funeral home. “We did take out the crematorium,” Weinstein notes.
Nearly all these buildings have been widely acclaimed by the architectural profession, and despite the bad press from the Post, the American Institute of Architects gave the newest 7th Street building an award two weeks after the Forgey column appeared.
In her cluttered office above Kultura Books in Dupont Circle, Weinstein wanders among sketches, models, and dozens of brick samples for one of her biggest current projects, the new Ellen Wilson Dwellings. The project is the culmination of about six years of work spearheaded by Capitol Hill residents seeking to rid their neighborhood of five acres of blight next to the Southeast Freeway. The site was once home to some 130 public-housing units built in the 1940s to replace the old alley dwellings that housed many of the city’s poor people. The resulting projectnamed for the wife of Woodrow Wilsonwas a disaster, and in 1988 the city moved out all the residents and the buildings were condemned.
As the city spent the next several years breaking all its promises to do something with the empty buildings, the neighbors decided to take matters into their own hands. A group of Capitol Hill residents approached Weinstein and asked if she would do a few sketches and designs for the site, pro bono, that they could take to the city. She agreed, the neighbors took the sketches and ideas to an earlier Barry administration, and they were “promptly shown the door.”
The Capitol Hill group persevered, and Weinstein worked with them to design a suitable replacement for the lost public-housing units that would also improve the neighborhood. Weinstein never really thought the projectwhich has brought her a fair amount of publicity this yearwould ever get off the ground. “I really didn’t do this for marketing purposes,” she says. But eventually, after much work, the new Ellen Wilson Development Corp. secured a $25-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to try something radical in public housing. That radical idea included Weinstein’s designs, which show that the architect has learned a little something from the failures of her predecessors.
Venturi designed some low-income housing similar to the abominable creations inspired by Le Corbusier. It was the French urban planner’s influence that led to the construction of the Chicago high-rise public-housing complexes that were eventually taken over by drug gangs, which found the buildings especially well engineered for criminal activity. The future residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings will hopefully avoid a similar fate.
“We’re trying to build regular-people houses,” Weinstein explains, adding that just because people are poor doesn’t mean they don’t want a nice kitchen just like other people. Instead of apartments, the new units will be town houses and duplexes with English basements. Future Ellen Wilson residents will not have the shared stairwells and elevators that local muggers find so inviting. The house designs will vary so that it won’t look like some prefab housing development in Columbia. “It’s more expensive to vary the design in Ellen Wilson,” she says, but explains that the neighborhood is much happier with the plan because it blends in with existing housing.
The project will also house people of mixed incomes, to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not just piled on top of each other and isolated from the rest of the city. The project has its critics, including Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, who are skeptical that people with resources would want to live in the development. But Weinstein is optimistic, because she has been getting phone calls from middle-class people in Anacostia who are interested in moving in.
Apparently location still counts for a lot, she says, and the nice, affordable town houses have a value that outweighs the downsides of living near public housing. “People from Northwest probably won’t be moving down there,” says Weinstein. “But people from across the river may be coming in.” No matter what, she says, “Even if this project fails miserably, it can’t be worse than [the old buildings]. But if it fails,” she adds, “it won’t be because of the architecture.” CP