Everyone has an opinion on architecture, what’s yours?
By Spencer Lepler
This week I want to shift gears a bit and focus on less monumental architecture, as in previous weeks, and instead focus on the objects that stand out in our city, looking at the field that defines Washington, DC – specifically the row houses of Capitol Hill. While the official historic district of Capitol Hill is one of the largest in the country, a large portion of the neighborhood lies outside of the historic district. These areas provide some interesting opportunities for new construction to interact with the historic housing stock.
I was walking along C Street in South East the other day and within a three block area I came across two relatively new developments. The first was at the corner of C and 15th Streets. The new buildings seem out of place in this neighborhood; they are too modern. While they follow a similar massing strategy as the rest of the row houses in the neighborhood, they are a story higher and use modern deconstructed facades to engage the street. The extra height of these buildings seem to refer to the Payne Elementary School across the street. In addition, the placement and order of the windows in these buildings seems to have no relation to the traditional row house rhythm, and the additional height serves to dwarf the neighbors. These buildings seem like they would be suited better for a neighborhood with a decent mix of old and new buildings, like Columbia Heights, not Capitol Hill. Here, they are in direct competition with the Elementary School as the object set against the field of the neighborhood…
As a comparison, one block closer to the Capitol Building between 14th Street and Kentucky Avenue along C there is a large community of row houses that were recently constructed. These houses use the existing fabric of the neighborhood as a template and improvises on specific elements. Like many of their neighbors, these are three story solid color buildings with a second story main entrance and decorative brickwork. They have enlarged roof fascias which project out and over the facade casting deep shadows; the unit at the corner of Kentucky and C has a rounded corner tower, which is similar to so many other historic properties, but in this case the rounded element is somewhat smaller than normal and the roof is oversized to exaggerate this element. In addition, this is one of the cases where windows are altered from the traditional row house rhythm to highlight architectural details. This can be seen on other units primarily on the third floor. By borrowing from the neighborhood in which they are set, this second set of buildings feels like a natural development in the evolution of the Capitol Hill row house. Their modern elements do not feel out of place, but rather they work in conjunction with the rest of the neighborhood fabric and do not compete for your attention.
[Photo: Ronnie R]
Spencer Lepler is an intern (unlicensed) architect who has lived and worked in the DC metro area since 2005. He posts on a semi-regular basis to his blog – selophane.com. He hopes to be licensed by the year end.