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Large, Mixed-Use 14th Street Project’s Design, Size Questioned for Former Whitman-Walker Site

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.]

Seldom has the ellipsis of historical omission been more telescoped in time than what occurred between the departure on December 15th of the Whiteman-Walker Clinic from its 14th and S Streets headquarters building and the Historic Preservation Review Board’s (HPRB) December 18th consideration of an application for the construction of a seven-story residential and retail building adjacent to that same site. No testimony was offered or received by the Board at its December meeting on the historical significance of the Clinic’s epochal program for the treatment, counseling, housing, legal, and related services provided over the past quarter century to people suffering from HIV/AIDS. These programs filled an absolute vacuum, beginning at a time when official and social Washington would not even say the name of the stigmatized illness. Starting with this 14th and S Streets site in 1986 with a distressed small, three-story apartment building facing S Street, complete with intact commercial storefronts, the Clinic’s core staff, together with hundreds of area volunteers — all under the dynamic leadership of now DC Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham — rehabilitated the building and built a multi-faceted program of services that became a model for the entire nation.

Neither was there any mention of such historical moment in the otherwise informative HPRB staff memorandum on this matter nor was there anyone from the Clinic present at the meeting to echo, if called on, any historic recognition of the Clinic’s significance at this historic site. Rather, the site was simply referred to as the Hudson apartment building — 1407 S Street — and the Clinic’s adjacent buildings as 1800-1818 14th Streets, these being, with the exception of the Laundromat at 14th and Swann Streets, Clinic expansion sites. Only the later interjected comments by Board members James Kane and Robert Sonderman provided any textual recognition of the Clinic’s historic significance for the HPRB official transcript record. Kane also noted the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) award for the design excellence of the Clinic’s pioneering adult day care center addition at the rear of the building for AIDS sufferers, and Sonderman gave witness to the Clinic’s well-known importance in the fight against the AIDS epidemic and his family’s — like that of many others – long-standing annual contributions in support of the Clinic’s programs and services.

Early on, however, HPRB settled down to the only real issue before the Board, namely, its review and approval — or disapproval — of the applicant’s proposed designs for the seven-story structure stretching the entire block from the rear of the historic Hudson apartment building, which was proposed for restoration, to the Swann and 14th Streets southwest corner. The small buildings facing 14th Street are being proposed for demolition as “non-contributing structures in the historic district.”

The design being considered by the Board was the second of two modernist designs proposed to the Board’s staff; it prompted far more controversy than the more straight-forward initial design. Both the staff and the immediate community objected to the dramatically differing design elements on the second proposal’s 14th Street façade, central to which is an interlaced series of glass projecting window walls — reminiscent of 1957 Chrysler window designs, asserted noted architect Shalom Baranes, evoking memories of 14th Street’s historic role as Washington’s automobile showroom row. Baranes, with Patrick Burkhart, architects for the owner/applicant JBG Companies, continued his presentation with an emphasis on the differing front façade design elements being proposed on all sides of the building — an aspect that was well-received. And in support of the applicant’s overall project, HPRB staff noted that this site in the Greater U Street Historic District is zoned C-3-A within the Uptown Arts Overlay District; this allows a height of 75 feet for the new structure.

Further questions centered on the visual relationship of the proposed 14th Street ground floor retail storefronts with those of the Hudson building facing Street and the location of the entrance to the proposed new building’s two levels of underground parking through the rear alley. Dupont Circle ANC Chair Ramon Estrada added the ANC’s concern about the lack of meaningful collaboration between the applicant, JBG, and the architects and the ANC. Rick Busch, testifying for the Dupont Circle Conservancy, added to his criticisms his concern for potential construction impacts on the nearby Civil War-era row houses on S Street, several of whose owner/residents were present at the hearing.

One of them, Tom Coumaris, who owns the house at 1413 S Street and lives in its former carriage house directly across the alley from the project site, spoke of the structural fragility these buildings, having been constructed without mortar between their bricks and with short railroad ties from the 1863-demolished 11th Street railway bridge . These ties were bolted together to form beams and joists. Further, visual inspection of the small, two-story houses in the adjacent historic row reveal small concrete feet serving as foundation supports. Coumaris related that one of the houses in that row had already suffered an upper story collapse during some previous renovation construction.

Finally, former HPRB member Denise Johnson, who lives farther down the S Street block, raised the question of the proposed new structure’s height and massing compatibility with the adjacent low-rise residential dwellings. And, now former ANC Commissioner Phil Spaulding, testifying on behalf of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association (CSNA), who did applaud the overall design, cautioned against the amount of glass in the 14th Street’s proposed façade, given the highly successful late-night weekend concerts across 14th at such venues as the Black Cat.

In a two-to-one split decision, six HPRB members voted to adopt the staff report and recommendations, “directing the applicant to re-study the proposal and return to the Board when appropriate.” Two members demurred; a third abstained.