The West Heating Plant looms behind the Four Seasons hotel.
The West Heating Plant looms behind the Four Seasons hotel.

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The view out the big windows of the Seasons restaurant in Georgetown’s Four Seasons hotel is dominated by a deteriorating brick structure that’s sat vacant for more than a decade. “In its current state, it’s an eyesore,” says architect David Adjaye, glancing up from his breakfast toward the West Heating Plant.

Adjaye plans to change that. As part of a team assembled by Georgetown developer Richard Levy, Adjaye—-who’s designed two highly regarded D.C. libraries as well as the National Museum of African American History and Culture that’s being built on the National Mall—-is working to convert the building to between 60 and 80 high-end condos in a Four Seasons residence. So high-end, in fact, that Levy says they’ll be “by far” the most expensive condos in town.

This might seem like a longshot for a former heating plant that supplied warmth to federal offices in the State Department and elsewhere, and that has structural issues and little natural light. It’s all the more difficult when you consider that a General Services Administration covenant on the building requires that any redevelopment comply with federal standards for the treatment of historic properties and limits the amount of demolition that’s possible.

But Adjaye has found a way to turn the building’s deficiencies to his advantage. Currently, the building has an outer skin of brick that’s not supported by the steel frame just inside it, so “if you put a hole in that, the brick wall just falls away,” Adjaye says. The brick wall has visible cracks in it. Even if the developer wanted to preserve the original facade, Adjaye says, the exterior would have to be taken down and rebuilt.

“So we said, if you’re going to go that far, maybe you have to take a different strategy, which was to say, could you enjoy the monumentality of the material and the scale, and the sense of opacity and transparency that’s through these kinds of ribbons that make this kind of faux Art Deco language?” Adjaye says. “Could you do it in the 21st century? And could you do it in a way which allowed the building to be a first-class residential project?”

Adjaye says the team has checked the covenants and found that as long as it keeps 30 percent of the footings, it can demolish much of the rest of the building. And so the plan is to preserve the brick facade facing 29th Street, take down the remainder of the building, down to the stone foundation line about a story above ground level, and “rebuild it in a terracotta or ceramic engineered extrusion which would be exactly the same color and texture as the brick.” Beneath the brick exterior will be a glass sheet, and gaps in the bricks will both mimic the jagged brick edge of the current building and allow light to come in.

“It’s done really well to last a good 50, 60 years,” Adjaye says of the poorly constructed building. “But it’s kind of at its shelf life. It’s done. Whatever you do, you have to replace that skin.”

Before starting work on the building, the team will need to persuade various preservation authorities that the redevelopment is both necessary and appropriate. The designs will have to win the approval of the Old Georgetown Board, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the Historic Preservation Review Board. Levy and Adjaye will present the building designs to the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission public this evening.

If the plans do come to fruition, Levy has high hopes for the condos’ prospects. “We believe that these apartments will reset the market for high-end condo living,” he says, noting that he’s already gotten calls from people “dying to lay down a deposit to have a claim on an apartment in the building,” even before doing any marketing. Prices for the condos have yet to be set, as do their layout. Levy says the building is about 15 feet deeper from north to south than would be ideal for allowing light into all the units, so the condos may end up larger than typical.

By making the condos so pricey and luxurious, Levy and Adjaye say, they’re able to pay for infrastructure work to create a new public park next to the Four Seasons residence that will “unlock” the C&O Canal waterfront.

“If you do a midlevel development, you can’t afford to redevelop the entire area,” says Adjaye. “But what you do by making a high-end development in this type of context is you then unlock the funding to be able to release all this as a public infrastructure and to make a one-acre park on the other side.”

This post initially stated that the presentation was to the ANC. In fact, it was to the public, with several members of the ANC present. The post has also been updated to clarify the nature of the restrictions on the redevelopment of the building as a historic property.

Photo by Aaron Wiener