Sunday, September 18, 2005

DUPONT CIRCLE: Grade X Buildings

While there are so many people out there who praise the Dupont Circle area for its architecture -- and there is certainly much to laud -- the immediate few blocks on its south side are a hodge podge of late 19th century landmarks and more modern structures. And most of the modern structures are a blight on the area. Because there hasn't been a new building built near Dupont Circle in many many years, Dupont Circle is stuck with what's there. And the snapshot we have in this photo says 1970s indifference.

At the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and 20th Street NW you have (on the right) the historic Heurich House, and (on the left) Bristol House, one of those apartment houses that is so unremarkable architecturally it is likely to be banned from AIA guides for all eternity. I think it is safe to say that the Bristol House, if ever threatened with demolition, will never have a Tom Wolfe come to its rescue in the same way Wolfe and so many others in New York have rallied to thwart the alteration of that ugly-yet-somehow-loveable Venetian-lollypop hunk of concrete at 2 Columbus Circle, declared as one of the United States' most-endangered structures by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Imagine if the proper authorities in Washington, D.C., would follow the lead of George Ferguson, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in trying to classify utterly worthless and eyesore buildings as "Grade X," perfect for public improvement or replacement grants.

From a 1994 memorandum by RIBA to Parliament:
We suggest that a pilot study is carried out into the encouragement of the removal or radical remodeling of buildings or structures that are perceived to be particularly detrimental to the appearance and character of conservation areas. This would entail the identification of such buildings and structures on a statutory "hit list"—Grade X listing. Grade X listed buildings and structures would be eligible for demolition/alteration grants where it helps to tip the economic balance and is seen to help with positive and appropriate regeneration.
The question there is who gets to decide what is ugly and what isn't. In the meantime, many of Washington's grand avenues will be scarred with countless Bristol Houses for generations to come.

I would declare many buildings as Grade X. At the top of my list would be the southeast corner of 13th and U streets in Northwest, scarred by probably the most unfortunate building in the U Street area. This building is of particular offense because it stands on an important corner, right above a Green Line station entrance and loudly calls out to people walking by that it never had any intention of contributing to the architectural vibrancy of the corridor it meant to serve. I find Benjamin Forgey's 2003 obituary for the corner quite fitting.


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