Renewing Urban Renewal
A Case Study in Southwest D.C.
By Amanda Murphy
Blueprints Winter 2007-08
Volume XXVI, No. 1
Given its relative obscurity, coupled with the fact that most of its buildings are barely 50 years old, Southwest D.C. would seem an unlikely focus of a historic preservation campaign; yet it is becoming just that. Like other post-war urban renewal zones that are now coming of age, the area is increasingly recognized as a site of historical and architectural significance. Recently, due to rising real estate pressures in D.C., planners, developers, and architects have begun to consider opportunities to restore and enhance some of the defining characteristics of this modernist neighborhood while fixing obvious urbanistic errors of the past.
The Urban Renewal Era
Between 1950 and 1965, more than 550 acres of small businesses, working-class row houses, and slum dwellings in Southwest were cleared in the name of remaking D.C.—as President Harry Truman put it—“the best-planned city in the world.” A vibrant if decrepit old neighborhood was soon replaced by coolly rational high-rise apartment blocks, Brutalist federal office buildings, modern town houses and churches, open green space, and parking lots. Such ambitious redevelopment schemes were common throughout the country during that time despite controversy over their disproportionate impact on African American families.
The new Southwest reflected a desire for rebirth as well as a rejection of traditional attitudes about urban living—sentiments that were deeply rooted in the ideals of modernism. Although popular in Europe for several decades, modernist urban design principles were just beginning to take hold in the United States, largely due to the influence of European émigré architects such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Southwest Washington became a major testing ground for such new design paradigms, not to mention the largest single urban renewal site in the world at that time. Breuer himself designed two government buildings in Southwest and some of Gropius and Breuer’s students, including I.M. Pei, would also have an influence on the new modern landscape in a city that had been, until that time, emphatically traditional.
The result of their efforts was one of the first truly modern urban neighborhoods—and one of the most successful urban renewal efforts—anywhere in the country. Unlike many similar projects in other cities, Southwest ultimately managed to attract and retain solidly middle-class individuals and families. A half-century after many of its constituent developments were completed, it is now a well-maintained, leafy, quiet enclave with much to offer both residents and visitors.
Nonetheless, the original Southwest plan had serious flaws that were typical of large-scale urban renewal schemes of the period. Inward facing superblocks diminished street activity; cul-de-sacs confused traffic circulation; high fences isolated residents from one another; and unrealized projects such as a town center and a grand mall on 10th Street showed the dangers of attempting to start over from scratch. Such fundamental design decisions have prevented the neighborhood from becoming a truly vital, modern community.
A Second Rebirth
David Maloney, the state historic preservation officer for D.C., is optimistic that a proposed development called Fairfield at Marina View will serve as a model for the reconsideration of Southwest—one in which existing modernist buildings are gently renovated while new structures are added into the mix. This project, led by the Washington architecture firm of Esocoff & Associates, involves the rehabilitation of two apartment buildings in the Town Center complex designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1962. Importantly, however, Fairfield at Marina View will also entail the construction of two new residential buildings; restoration and rejuvenation of public open spaces; and a plan for reconnecting the complex with the surrounding neighborhood.
Although the Pei buildings are not registered landmarks, the architects and the developer, Fairfield Residential, decided to work with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, D.C. Preservation League, and other interested parties to devise a plan in which the two towers would be treated sensitively. Ultimately, there was agreement that, whatever alterations were made to Town Center, the property should retain sufficient historic and architectural integrity to remain eligible for inclusion in a potential historic district nomination for the entire Southwest urban renewal precinct. As Philip Esocoff, FAIA, principal of Esocoff & Associates, put it, the approach was a matter of “saving the baby and throwing out the bathwater.”
In rehabilitating the Pei buildings, Esocoff ’s firm went to great lengths to apply the nationally recognized preservation guidelines known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which provide direction for even the most minute details of a project. For example, hairline cracks in Pei’s concrete structure are being cleared of the mismatched grout that was applied in a haphazard fashion over the years. They will be re-patched with grout of a more compatible color, and then sealed with a clear coat. This method will allow the original texture and color of the concrete—as well as the natural patina it has acquired over time—to remain visible.
Windows posed a bigger problem. The original single-glazed units were energy-inefficient, and their thin aluminum frames were not structurally capable of supporting new insulated glass panels. It was therefore unavoidable that the old windows would need to be replaced. However, a thoughtful way to preserve Pei’s design intent was devised. First, the characteristic dimensions of the existing windows—7 feet by 7 feet—will be retained. While the new window frames are thicker than the originals, they will be two-toned, with an outer silver band similar in scale to the full width of Pei’s originals. The inner, dark bronze band of the new frames will visually recede and be subsumed into the varying window treatments and lighting conditions of individual apartment units inside.
Esocoff noted that the window problem raises philosophical questions that preservationists will need to address in order for other modernist buildings to be eligible for historic preservation tax credits, since so many buildings of this era feature exteriors almost entirely of glass. Would removal of these original features compromise a structure’s architectural integrity? Can 80% or more of a building’s exterior be removed without running afoul of generally accepted historic preservation standards? If those standards do not allow full replacement, how can the buildings conform to even minimal standards for thermal efficiency? Such questions illuminate the delicate— and sometimes difficult—balance that architects and preservationists must pursue when trying to figure out how best to adapt older structures to current standards.
New Design Based on Neighborhood Precedent
In designing the two new towers for Fairfield at Marina View, Esocoff and senior associate Linda Palmer, Associate AIA, wanted them to complement, rather than match, the Pei buildings. They decided to survey other urban renewal-era buildings in the area for inspiration. Noting that even the mid-20thcentury modernists often looked to classical antiquity and other periods for ideas, Esocoff said, “The built environment is a book you can open and read.”
The design for the new construction is largely inspired by Chloethiel Woodard Smith’s nearby Capitol Park apartment towers, which date from the late 1950s and early ’60s and were the first Southwest urban renewal-era buildings to receive a historic landmark designation. Esocoff ’s buildings will feature undulating curved walls of glass and concrete, cantilevered metal balconies, and obvious “nonsupporting” decorative brick features—all elements that Smith used in the design of her buildings. Esocoff feels the new buildings reflect the essential elements of both Pei’s and Smith’s buildings without actually copying their specific motifs.
Repairing the Modernist Breach of the Streetscape
As part of the Marina View project, much of the original Town Center landscape will also be restored, though the high walls and fences that currently separate the complex and from the street will be removed, and pedestrian walkways, public garden areas, and refreshment stands will be added. This aspect of the project is being directed by the landscape architecture firm of Zion Breen Richardson; partner Don Richardson worked on the original design of Town Center while an associate with the firm, then known as Zion Breen, in the 1960s.
Another way in which the Marina View project will improve upon the mid-20th-century urban pattern is through environmentally conscious design strategies. The Pei towers, for instance, will be retrofitted with green roofs, while the new buildings will be topped with green roofs from the start. The landscape design also incorporates multimodal planning that will encourage walking and bicycling, while still accommodating cars in an appropriate way.
If Fairfield at Marina View proves successful, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office is likely to consider using the project as an explicit model for guidelines for future redevelopment of urban renewal-era structures in Southwest. Like everyone involved in this endeavor, Maloney, the D.C. preservation officer, is hopeful that the project will demonstrate that modernist buildings can be both meaningfully preserved and carefully updated to meet the needs of present-day living. •