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Hilton Washington Hotel’s Plan for Major Condo Tower Addition and Expanded Meeting Spaces Well Received by Preservation Board

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

In a well attended October 2nd hearing before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), architects for the Hilton Washington Hotel applicant and residents of the Dupont Circle and Washington Heights neighborhoods took center stage in the opening round of the latest campaign in the 50-year battle between nearby residents and operators of this Brutalist-style behemoth cast in the form of a giant concrete butterfly.

This startlingly prominent hotel, recently accorded an historic landmark designation by the HPRB, is better known to some for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan at the hotel’s T Street entrance and for the occasional high profile political and social events which the accompanying crowds and security concerns can literally shut down the surrounding area.

Constructed in the early to mid-1960s on a large, irregularly shaped plot of land that descends dramatically from Kalorama Heights’ Columbia Road down to Florida Avenue and T Street to create its southern edge, and with Connecticut Avenue bounding the site on the west and 19th Street on the east, the building’s two sculptural shaped asymmetrical hotel room wings appear to float above their respective lobby or ground floor base levels.

In ironically different ways, these wings seem totally disconnected from each other and from that of the nearby community. The west wing faces Connecticut Avenue from behind a sunken terrace level, accessible to automobiles and pedestrians alike solely down a circular drive. The hotel’s much larger east wing has only a bare edge or tip visible from Connecticut Avenue and is hidden from pedestrians on Florida Avenue by a high, heavily landscaped berm. The east wing’s recreational terrace is inhospitable in its access to both hotel guest and the public as a consequence of being well below lobby level on the west side and above that of the south side’s T Street entrance. Half the hotel, including its huge grand ballroom and several levels of meeting room spaces, are underground.

The current skirmish is over the hotel’s application for the construction of a new, curvilinear-shaped apartment tower facing the existing east wing, together with the raising of the recreational terrace to accommodate a new below-grade junior ballroom and the movement and reconfiguration of the swimming pool to the northeast corner of the site overlooking 19th Street and Florida Avenue. Long-standing problems with the loading docks at that same corner are proposed for mitigation by the replacement of one of the underground parking lot exits with another truck loading and unloading entrance and the lengthening of the truck bays to fully enclose these vehicles within the Hilton’s underground. This would not, however, address the truck turning radius issue.

Zoning, land use, and loading dock construction permits legally in place at the Hilton site date back to an earlier era of city planning enthusiasm for urban renewal and the construction of skyscrapers and the use of expressway transportation modes that focused on moving commuter traffic as expeditiously as possible. Today’s concerns are different. Walkable communities with enough density to attract neighborhood-serving businesses and professional services and at the same time sufficient to provide the tax base for the customary civic amenities of such as schools, libraries, and parks, to name a few, are contemporary urban priorities.

How the proposed Hilton restoration and new building construction comports with these new and evolving paradigm frames the differing ramparts of these two, well-armed and battle-seasoned camps. And this first, city-level October 2nd skirmish was a clear victory for the Hilton. In a comprehensive presentation by its lead architect and designer, Hany Hassan of Beyer Blinder Belle, the existing hotel site and the proposed additions were presented pictorially, with exhaustive plans and drawings, and with Power Point sequences of illustrations, concluding with an abstract animation of the proposed completed site. A very large, scale model of the project, surrounded with amazing contextual detail, was placed before the Board. All three approaches reinforced the architect’s assertions that his designs and plans served to both respect the historic landmarked hotel and complete and complement its best features. Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff agreed, and HPRB Board members were unanimous in their compliments about the beauty of Hassan’s new apartment tower design, one that provides a strong and deliberate, reversing curved echo to the open curve of the facing hotel’s east wing.

Contesting Hassan’s presentation was that of Dupont Circle architect Volker Zinser, whose clearly articulated and concisely presented objections were accompanied by his own Power Point presentation of alternatives, for which he had hand-drawn in outline over images of the hotel site. Zinser’s design approach consisted of 30 and 40-foot high apartment structures along the Florida Avenue and 19th Street edges of the site and the movement of the loading dock entrance from 19th Street to the T Street entrance adjacent to the existing hotel parking garage entrance, and retention of the full panoply of terrace and recreational spaces, including the planned elimination of the tennis courts, which are now framed by the east wing arc of the site.

While unconvinced, both HPRB and its HPO staff commended Zinser for his presentation, emphasizing as it did the original program of the hotel site, and for his offering of an architectural alternative, complete with plans, drawings, photographs, and calculations.

The next level of combatants were led by HPO’s senior staff preservationist and DC State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney, who prepared the HPO staff report and recommendations, and neighborhood resident Ann Hughes Hargrove, whose knowledge and experience regarding the District’s zoning, land use, and preservation statutes and regulations rivals that of prominent DC law firms. Maloney’s staff recommendations for further refinements to architect Hassan’s basic design proposal, which the Hilton quickly acceded to, and a summary, two-part concluding recommendation that the Hilton continue to work with the community and the District’s Office of Planning (OP) to craft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on outstanding community issues and return to the Board with such an agreement, together with the Board’s requested design refinements for final HPRB conceptual design approval was outlined in detail.

Ann Hargrove, on behalf of herself and the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA), and backed by several supporting associates and activists, strongly disagreed with Maloney’s staff report, asserting that the proposed apartment tower was too massive, too tall, proposed too much additional floor space, and might be in violation of current zoning and other regulations. If built, Hughes asserted, the new addition would overwhelm the surrounding historic districts and their row house environment. Hughes continued with recommendations for further study, including that the Hilton and HPO examine the Sheraton Wardman Park Hotel’s solution to it own loading dock turning radius problems by placing its location at the 24th Street entrance to the facility.

Rick Busch for the Dupont Circle Conservancy and ANC Commissioner Will Stephens for the Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan ANCs strenuously seconded Hughes’ specific concerns as did architect Lois Thibadeau for the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Half-a-dozen neighbors added their voices to this opposition, including one who recalled Ann Hargrove serving as the community’s Barbara Fritchie in the 1961 fight against the Hilton’s original plan to demolish the Wyoming Apartments on Columbian Road for a larger initial hotel site.

Lisa Duperier, president of the Adams Morgan Main Street, appeared on behalf of her board to serve as the lone live witness testifying in support of the Hilton’s proposed expansion. The Hilton’s new owners, Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group-East, Inc. offered letters of support from Vornado, owner of the neighboring Universal North and Universal South buildings, and HPRB received a letter of support for the Hilton project from the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DCMAP), along with many other letters and emails both in support and in opposition, according to HPRB Chair Tersh Boasberg.

HPRB’s unanimous adoption of Maloney’s HPO staff report and recommendations added the following caveats: that Maloney and the applicant provide the Board with depictions of how a one- or two-story lower apartment tower would affect the design and the obstruction of views; that the applicant provide a new, curvilinear design alternative to the proposed new swimming pool and green screen rectilinearly-designed tower at 19th Street and Florida Avenue; that more pedestrian friendly sidewalks, stone landscaped berm, and access around the site be explored; that the applicant consider a better separation between the old and new ends of the east wing buildings; and that the applicant prepare more detail on the edges of the project site. This, and further work on a prospective MOU between the Hilton and the community will set the stage for skirmish number two before the HPRB.