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Letter Submitted to HPRB by Darwina L. Neal (3/18/2015)

I am writing to urge that the Historic Preservation Review Board, at your March 26, 2015 meeting, not approve the Meridian International’s proposed addition/new construction to the White-Meyer House as designed, because it is not compatible with that house, the Meridian Hill Historic District and its Design Guidelines, or the DC Historic Preservation Guidelines for Additions to Historic Buildings and New Construction in Historic Districts.

The proposed Meridian International (MI) development would be located on their property between the White-Meyer Mansion and 16th Street, NW, which is within the recently-established Meridian Hill Historic District. Meridian International’s 4-acre property now contains only Meridian House and the White-Meyer Mansion, both of which were designed by the renowned architect, John Russell Pope, and are DC Historic Landmarks, as well as on the National Register of Historic Places, so that the entire block is on the National Register, and thus has great historical significance.

Although I live at Beekman Place Condominium, whose entrance is on Belmont Street, directly across from the southern border of the MI property, and whose comments I helped develop, and am a member of several local, national and international historic preservation and cultural landscape organizations, these are my personal comments, based on my experience as a landscape architect, who retired several years ago as Chief, Cultural Resource Preservation Services for the National Capital Region, National Park Service and was formerly Chief of Design Services. While employed there, I had worked since 1972 on various projects to restore or rehabilitate Meridian Hill Park, a National Historic Landmark that, according to the Meridian Hill Historic District Design Guidelines, “provides a strong central axis and focal point” for the Historic District. It is “surrounded by an important array of grand Beaux Arts-style mansions, foreign legations and large-scale apartment buildings” that “were sited to take advantage of views to and through the park along 15th and 16th Streets.” Views from it are also important.

The Meridian Hill Historic District Guidelines were developed to ensure that any proposed construction preserves important character-defining features of historic properties within it, and is compatible in character with the components of the historic district. Thus a major consideration of the proposed MI project is its compatibility, not only with the Meridian International mansions, but also with Meridian Hill Park, 16th Street, one of DC’s “Grand Avenues’’, which is known as “The Avenue of the Presidents”, and the grand mansions that line it, as well as views from, and up and down and along it. In addition, as both an alteration and new construction, the MI Project must conform to DC Historic Preservation Guidelines for Additions to Historic Buildings and for New Construction in Historic Districts, such as design principles of setback, orientation, scale, massing, height, materials and colors, as well as DC zoning and building codes.

The DC Design Principles for New Additions state that: “When an addition to a historic building is required for functional, economic or other reasons, it should be designed to be compatible with the existing building,” that “The compatibility of an addition is dependent on the design of the original building, its site and neighborhood” and “…it is more important for an addition that is visible from a public street or alley to be compatible to the original…”.

The following are examples of how the proposed MI building is not compatible with the design principles of the historic district and the components within it.

• Height: Although “…an addition does not necessarily need to be exactly the same height as the existing building, it should be designed to be compatible to the existing height of the building and its neighbors,” and “a side addition with the same setback as the existing building should typically not be more than one story higher or lower than the original building,” but the height of the new MI building is not compatible with either the existing building or its neighbors. The 130-unit building would be 6 and 9 stories high, vs. the 2-story height of the White-Meyer Mansion and, according to roof elevations shown on the plans, it would be 7’ higher than the Envoy to the north, but it would also have a penthouse mechanical structure that could be up to 18’6” higher. In reality, it would be even higher, as shown in renderings, because it is constructed at the top of a slope. It would tower about 6 stories above adjacent Beekman Place to the south. In fact, it would be the highest building along this section of 16th Street.

In addition, its greater height in relationship to the buildings north of it would interrupt the visual height pattern established along 16th Street to the south, where the heights of the buildings generally step down with the slope as they go down the hill. Thus its overwhelming height would make it appear to be a “bookend” to the properties north of it, with a sharp drop to the much lower height of Beekman Place in the block to the south, rather than a gradual height transition.

• Scale and Massing: “Scale is the relative or apparent size of a building in relationship to its neighbors.” The proposed building would have a greater mass (footprint) than either of the MI mansions – i.e., the at-grade footprint of the addition would be at least 3X greater than the adjacent building to which it would be added and its underground footprint would be more than 5X greater. Thus it would be incompatible with its neighbors.

• Setback: “DC zoning code regulates the legal setback of a building…”, but “a new addition should respect the setbacks established by the existing buildings on a street”. In contrast, however, the new building would not respect the Crescent Place setbacks established by either the adjacent White-Meyer House, or 1661 Crescent and the Envoy across the street. Instead it abuts the sidewalk, with no setback.

• Orientation: According to the Guidelines, “The orientation of a building is the direction it faces. Most historic buildings squarely face a street, with their principal facade and entrance in full view. …The orientation of an addition should respect the existing orientation of the building to which it is attached, as well as the orientation of neighboring buildings,” with its façade aligned with the facades of its neighbors, and its principal entrance and façade should respect their primary orientation. For example, the District’s apartment buildings tend to place primary design emphasis on the front and side elevations facing public streets, with primary entrances in the center of their facades.

However, the MI building addition has no primary “face” or readily-apparent entrance, let alone a central one, because, in order to gain a “16th Street address”, its main entrance is a small and visually insignificant one at the corner of 16th and Belmont, carved out of the south end of the high grassed slope that runs along 16th Street between Belmont and Crescent. It would not even be visible to those driving or walking south on 16th Street until they almost reach it.

This is in direct contrast with the grand primary entrances to both Meridian House and the White-Meyer Mansion, and the 1661 Crescent building that face Crescent Street and are set back from that street, since the Crescent Street side of the new building abuts the sidewalk and appears to have only a minor access door in it. It is also in direct contrast to the 16th Street-facing buildings to the north that have clearly-defined central entrances in their primary facades that are at the same grade as the street.

The proposed addition building would be more compatible with the White-Meyer House, if its main entrance were from Crescent Place, in the center of its façade, with a comparable setback. A Crescent entrance would be most compatible in relating not only to the other MI mansions – i.e., putting all three grand central-façade entrances in a row on the same street, but also the entrance to 1661 Crescent on the other side of that same street – all well-designed historic buildings.

Although the ANC1C has proposed a main entrance from 16th Street, I question whether such a grand central entrance that would be compatible with those of the adjacent 16th Street buildings can be effectively incorporated into the 16th Street berm. Because of the grassed high slope along 16th Street, trying to create a central grand entrance from 16th would require not only cutting a broad swath into the slope from the back of the sidewalk up to the brick retaining wall to get to the required setback line that is coincidental with that wall, but also extensive feathering back of the slope on both sides of that entrance so it doesn’t look like a “tunnel”. In addition, the slope of 16th Street is so great there, that it would be difficult to design an at-grade wide entrance that would be level enough for ease of access. Such severe grading would also require the removal of even the two large trees that the developer said they are trying to save. In any case, such an entrance would have a completely different character from any of the other entrances to buildings along 16th Street, let alone the adjacent Envoy, and thus not be compatible with the historic district. It would also face the blank high retaining wall of Meridian Hill Park across 16th Street.

Actually the steeply-graded section of 16th Street between Florida Avenue and Crescent Street transitions from the more gently sloped topographical “plain” that runs from the Potomac River up to Florida Avenue, which runs along the base of geological rise in topography that slopes up to the “plateau” at Crescent. That is why Florida Avenue was originally called “Boundary Street”, because it was the Northern boundary of the original “Federal City”. Thus 16th Street had to be cut into that slope between, resulting in the grassed slope along the west side of 16th and the high retaining walls of MHP on the east. Thus no entrances to buildings on the west, and the entrance to the park near the base of the slope on the east. Also, the Great Terrace of Meridian Hill Park, which is directly across 16th Street from the proposed building, was located there to take advantage of the natural height of the “plateau” there and provide an “overlook” of the city below.

Regarding a possible entrance from Belmont, the two MI Mansions back onto Belmont with their high back retaining walls penetrated only by a couple of very secondary access doors set flush into the walls that abut the sidewalk, so it is apropos to have the new building back onto it, as well. On the south side of Belmont, directly across the street from the only proposed vehicle access to MI, is the Beekman Place (BP) Condominium Gatehouse, flanked by entrance and exit gates, certainly not a “grand entrance” that would be compatible with an MI grand entrance across the street. In addition, because of the high grades and retaining wall on the north side of Belmont, it would not be practical to cut back into the slope to create a level area needed for one. Thus there are no comparable entrances along Belmont, since there is also a retaining wall along the south side of Belmont from the BP entrance up to a secondary vehicle entrance to a parking lot that serves the Belmont portion of BP. So an entrance from Belmont is not feasible, let alone compatible.

• Views: The Meridian Hill Historic District Guidelines cite the importance of maintaining views to and from Meridian Hill Park, as well as up and down 16th Street and to the grand mansions within it. However the new MI building would interrupt or block a number of these views. The 9-story height of the building would essentially create a “wall” along 16th Street, blocking city vista views from the Meridian Hill Grand Terrace to the west, as well as views of the MI mansions from 16th Street. Although the developer has stated that the lower height of the western portion of the new building would allow views of them from 16th Street, they would be visible to 16th Street north-bound drivers only for a few seconds, and unseen by south-bound ones. It would also block all Envoy residents’ southern views, as well as Beekman Place and other adjacent residents’ views to Meridian Hill Park. Because the building would abut the Crescent Street sidewalk, the view from 16th Street along that portion of Crescent would be a narrow, very restricted one.

• Materials and Colors: The materials and colors used for an addition in an historic district should be compatible to those on the existing building and using compatible exterior materials is particularly important for a new addition visible from a public street. Although the design of the new addition is only conceptual, it does not appear that either the proposed materials or their colors would be compatible with those of the adjacent historic buildings.

• Landscape Features: The DC Guidelines for New Construction in Historic Districts state that landscape plantings and features can be important elements to preserve. Although the landscape adjacent to the White-Meyer Mansion would be completely replaced, it was not included in the National Register nomination and is not a contributing element, but the large trees, gardens and gazebo located there will be a significant loss to the ambiance of the neighborhood. In addition, several of the trees along adjacent streets may be lost due to construction staging, and it appears that only two trees between 16th Street and the project footprint, which would have helped to screen the proposed building, would be saved.

In summary, as designed, Meridian International’s proposed addition/new construction to the White-Meyer House would have an adverse impact not only on both of the MI National Register of Historic Places properties, but also on the National Historic Landmark Meridian Hill Park and the DC Meridian Hill Historic District.

Thus I urge the Historic Preservation Review Board to reject the as-submitted conceptual design and require resubmittal of a design that is compatible with not only the historic house and its neighbors, but also the Meridian Hill Historic District, and is compliant with the design principles established in DC Historic Preservation Guidelines for both Additions to Historic Buildings and New Construction in Historic Districts.