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Board Grants Landmark Status to Historic Foggy Bottom Site and Buildings

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.]

With a speed and dispatch totally uncharacteristic of DC regulatory boards and commissions, the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) dispatched six historic landmark applications in a fast-track approval process of 55, carefully scheduled minutes at its January 28, 2010 monthly meeting.

All six were George Washington University (GWU) nominations for the DC and federal registers for these now landmarked structures together with one site where historic “events” occurred — the John J. Earley Office and Studio.

The other five of these are good-sized, modest but handsomely constructed apartment buildings from the 1920s and 1930s which reflected the need for small commercial rental units to house government workers who flocked to Washington in the concluding years of World War I and continued coming to the city as the 1920s depression and the 1930s New Deal swelled the expansion of the federal bureaucracy. These five buildings, with their studio and one-bedroom apartments, now serve as dormitories for GWU students.

The sixth nomination was far and away the most interesting to historians — and significant to preservationists – for the reason that it was the first residence, workshop, and studio of Washington’s noted master craftsman of concrete, stone, and plaster, John J. Earley. As summarized in the informative Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff memorandum and as presented by Traceries, GWU’s historic preservation consultants, Earley’s 20th century innovations during the first decades of the century brought a beauty and enhanced structural strength to both construction and decorative poured and pre-cast concrete that has already endured for almost a full century.

Among Earley’s important accomplishments were the concrete pebble aggregate walls and sidewalks and his decorative patterning and aggregate mosaic masterpiece in Meridian Hill Park, Washington’s city beautiful urban park designed by the city’s distinguished municipal architect Howard Peaslee, who contracted with Earley for a design and construction plan that would serve to embellish Peaslee’s architectural designs.

In spite of minimal — and at times neglectful — maintenance, Earley’s architectural concrete, as he aptly characterized his patented aggregate and mosaic processes used for the park, has weathered well, continuing to be both functional and beautiful. Traceries’ Paul Singh’s PowerPoint presentation at the HPRB meeting provided images of several outstanding examples of Earley’s work in Washington. Among the 50 known Earley Studio projects shown were the Potomac Park Field House (1917), the interior of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart (1922-1923); the National Zoo’s Bird and Reptile House (1927-1931); and the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue (1953-1957).

Earley’s office and workshop/studio structures and building site being historically landmarked is located on the GWU campus directly across G Street from the beautifully restored and handsomely expanded School Without Walls, the public school building previously named for President Grant. A hodgepodge of undistinguished small structures, their historic landmarking and DC and National Register nominations are based on the preservationist concept of an “event,” — in this case being that master craftsman Earley developed his patented processes while his workshop and studio were at this location.

The GWU apartment buildings are within this same core of the University’s 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan, which recently received its final approval, and are both within and outside the proposed GWU historic district, currently under consideration by HPO and HPRB. These buildings are the following: “The Everglades” at 2223 H Street; “The Flagler” at 736 22nd Street; “Munson Hall” and “Milton Hall,” both in the 2200 block of I Street; and “The Keystone” at 2150 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Apartment buildings of this stature and significance are more typically designated as “contributing structures” when in historic districts rather than as “historic landmarks.” It is possible that when the GWU historic district is declared, these buildings will be re-designated.