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Curious Capital Architecture: Unusual Buildings of the District of Columbia

Washington, D.C., is known the world over for its conservative and classy architectural character, but there is a vocal minority of buildings that aren’t afraid to stand out.

By John DeFerrari

The architecture of Washington, D.C., famously tends to the reserved and dignified, eschewing much of anything eccentric. Commercial buildings downtown are known for their boxy conformism, driven in large part by the city’s height restrictions that force designers to maximize floor space at the expense of originality. But despite the sameness of so many D.C. buildings, there are still plenty of unusual and quirky architectural gems well worth visiting during the AIA 2012 National Convention. Here is a sampling:

Any tour of unique D.C. buildings should start with the Pension Building at 401 F St., NW. Completed in 1887, the home of the National Building Museum was designed by Union Army General Montgomery C. Meigs, and will be featured in the convention session, “The National Building Museum’s Historic Home: The Pension Building.” After the Civil War, the Pension Bureau, forerunner of the Department of Veterans Affairs, had mushroomed in size and needed new space. Meigs used brick and terra cotta to save money, but nevertheless created a stately Italian Renaissance landmark with an extraordinary frieze of military scenes encircling the entire structure above the first floor.

Like any other unusual building, it has not always been loved. “Too bad the damn thing is fireproof,” General Philip Sheridan (or, perhaps, General William Tecumseh Sherman) supposedly smirked when the great “red barn” was completed. Notable features include the Great Hall’s eight enormous Corinthian columns made of plaster-faced brick. Note the three “missing” bricks under each window, where outside air was drawn in to rise up through the Great Hall to exhaust through the rows of clerestory windows on the roof.

Washington buildings in the 1870s and 1880s were predominantly red brick, and one of the city’s outstanding architects of the day was German immigrant Adolf Cluss, who designed the red-brick Calvary Baptist Church at 755 8th St., NW, completed in 1866. The impressive Gothic Revival structure is a notable example of pressed red brick put to extraordinarily graceful effect, and its 160-foot spire was once the tallest in Washington. The original church burned in a nighttime fire in 1867 during a massive December snowstorm. It was soon rebuilt, but suffered another catastrophe in 1913 when a sudden tornado wrenched the unique iron spire off the tower, turning it into a twisted ball of wreckage. The church remained with only a stump of a tower until 2005, when a fiberglass replica of the original spire was added back, completing the building again after almost a century.

Gothic Revival structures are relatively rare in Washington, and Carpenter Gothic houses (wooden homes with typical Gothic Revival flourishes) are especially rare. One such gem is President Lincoln’s Cottage, located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home at the corner of Upshur St. and Rock Creek Church Road NW. Designed by John Skriving and originally known as the Corn Rigs House, this charming country home was built in 1842 by wealthy banker George Riggs as a summer getaway on his bucolic 256-acre country estate outside the city. The house was situated on a picturesque hilltop with a spectacular view of Washington in the distance. The army purchased the Riggs estate as a home for retired soldiers in 1851, building additional structures for that purpose. The original Corn Rigs House became an early presidential retreat. Most famously, Abraham Lincoln was fond of riding out to the cottage, and worked on a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation while staying there. The cottage had deteriorated substantially in recent years, but in 2008, after seven years of restoration work, the National Trust for Historic Preservation reopened it as a museum. It will also be featured in the convention session “President Lincoln’s Cottage: Innovation in Historic Sites.”

Another one-of-a-kind house is the Alice Pike Barney Studio House, built in 1903 and located at 2306 Massachusetts Ave., NW. The unique design, by prestigious Washington architect Waddy B. Wood, combines Spanish Mission styling on the exterior with Arts and Crafts detailing on the inside. It was built for the wealthy and eccentric socialite Alice Pike Barney, who had grown fond of the fin-de-siècle studio townhouses in Paris, where she had studied art. Wanting to bring art to provincial Washington, she opened her studio house for amateur productions of her own dramatic “tableaux,” with all of fashionable Washington in attendance. The Embassy of Latvia now occupies the house.

Perhaps Washington’s most unusual structure within a residential neighborhood is Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Bureau, at 1537 35th St., NW in Georgetown. Built in 1893 of yellow brick and sandstone, the stately Neo-Classical temple of a building was designed by the prestigious Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns. Bell belonged to a family of teachers who worked with the deaf, and his early work was in the same area. When he moved on from hearing impaired research and sold his record patents to the American Gramophone Company in 1887, he used the profits to found the Volta Bureau “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.” The bureau was originally located in his father’s house in Georgetown, but when its operations expanded, Bell had the stately Volta Bureau building constructed on an adjoining lot. Now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Bell’s foundation continues to operate from its historic Georgetown headquarters.

One often-overlooked but utterly original building is the SunTrust Bank building at 2 Massachusetts Ave., NW near Union Station. Completed in 1926, it’s the only building in the District designed by William Van Alen, architect of New York City’s Chrysler Building. He did this one for the Childs restaurant chain, which wanted a distinctive building near the train station that would call attention to itself. Van Alen’s creation, faced in an exotic Italian limestone with great bronze-framed windows, was admired at the time of its opening in a Washington Post article that found “a lofty dignity and architectural beauty about it seldom seen in restaurants.” The visible part of the building is the former dining room, clad on the interior with expensive Italian travertine. The kitchen and other support areas were originally located in a much larger space underground.

Another relatively rare architectural style for Washington is Art Deco, which in its purest form is probably a bit too exuberant for D.C. design sensibilities. Nevertheless, a few gems have survived, including the former Greyhound Super Terminal, completed in 1940 and located at 1100 New York Ave., NW. Like many of the bus terminals constructed all over the country by Greyhound in the 1930s and 1940s, this one was designed by the Louisville, Ky., architect William S. Arrasmith, and it is one of his finest. The rounded Indiana limestone, glazed black terracotta coping, and aluminum trim add to the streamlined look. The interior walls were originally walnut and burnished copper. The building is now the grand lobby of the office building behind it, but there is a permanent display recalling the terminal’s many decades as a bustling transportation hub.

Intelsat Headquarters, at 4000 Connecticut Ave., NW, constructed in 1985, stands as perhaps the ultimate (attempted) repudiation of D.C.’s architectural conservatism. “At last a good building!” exclaimed the Washington Post architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt, when the building’s design was revealed in 1980. Australian Modernist John Andrews, Hon. FAIA, designed the space-age glass-and-brushed-steel complex, which consists of nine great octagonal “pods” flanked by glass block and concrete stairwell silos climbing a quiet hillside in the upper northwest portion of the city. Inside, an airy series of atriums, all slightly different in design, are linked by a central corridor. While almost all new commercial buildings these days strive for LEED certification, the Intelsat headquarters embraced energy conservation long before LEED standards were even created. The building maximizes the use of solar energy in the way it is set against the hillside, and includes what are now called green roofs.

John DeFerrari pens the Streets of Washington blog about the architectural and cultural history of Washington, D.C., structures and institutions.


Curious Capital Architecture Infographic:

Where to find Washington’s one-of-a-kind architecture wonders


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