For most people, Washington, DC, is synonymous with the U.S. Government—home to majestic federal buildings and monuments on the one hand and faceless bureaucrats and mundane policy-making on the other. Tourists typically focus on the museums and memorials along the NationalMall—admittedly an architectural treasure trove worth every minute—but devote little time to the rest of the city. The center of a metropolitan area of nearly 6.4 million people (only about370,000 of whom work for the federal government, by the way), Washington is a diverse and culturally rich city full of intriguing neighborhoods, buildings, and parks.
The sixth edition of the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC, recently published for the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is a great tool for getting to know the whole city. With roughly 450 entries, including everything from famous federal landmarks to innovative civic buildings to quirky private structures, the guidebook highlights the buildings’ interesting design elements while delving into their sometimes-complex backstories. Did you know, for instance, that many of DC’smagnificentembassies were originally built as party houses for the country’s ultra-rich over a century ago?
The guidebook can help visitors and locals alike to see aspects of DC’s architecture through fresh eyes. Tourists interested in architecture might want to check out a few specific areas of the city, highlighted below.
Over the past couple of decades, several areas of DC that had long been overlooked or neglected have been transformed by ambitious mixed-use development. One example is the wharf, in the city’s Southwest quadrant, near the point where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet. Thanks to $3.6 billion in private investment and a master plan by Perkins Eastman, a waterfront that was once lined with weary-looking motels and generic restaurants is now a phenomenally popular dining, entertainment, and recreation destination. New buildings by talented local and national architecture firms swoop, step, and soar alongside a bustling pedestrian promenade that links several public piers over the water.1One anchor of the complex is the Municipal Fish Market, which has been in continuous operation since 1805 but has been renovated and expanded by the local firm StudioMBto accommodate a variety of new restaurants. A short walk from the Wharf is the little-known but stunningly beautifulTitanicMemorial, sculpted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to honor the men who gave their lives so that other passengers of the doomed ship might live.
Roughly one mile east of the Wharf is the bustling Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, spawned partly by the opening of Nationals Ballpark, home to DC’s major league baseball team, in 2008. Bounded by the stadium on the west and the still-active Washington Navy Yard on the east, this area includes several former industrial structures (once part of the Navy’s extensive manufacturing operations) that have been converted to retail and restaurant use. A riverfront walkway offers views of some of the most interesting new buildings, including a remarkably stylish, sinuous glass building that is the new headquarters of DC’s water and sewer authority, designed by SmithGroup with Leuterio Thomas, LLC.2
To the north-northeast of Capitol Hill is the burgeoning union Market area, initially developed in the 1920s as the city’s primary wholesale market complex. It’s now a dynamic mixed-use neighborhood including food halls offering a range of innovative cuisine, unconventional apartment, and office buildings, and quite a few wholesale outlets that have hung on despite the rapid redevelopment.3Just down the street from Union Market is the campus of GallaudetUniversity, the nation’s leading institution of higher learning for the deaf and hearing-impaired, whose picturesque campus was originally designed by Olmsted, Vaux& Co., creators of NewYork’s Central Park.
It’s easy to take centuries-old neighborhoods in cities like Washington for granted, but the guidebook offers a lens through which to see these historic areas in a new light. Georgetown, for example, is one of the most storied parts of DC, renowned for its elegant townhouses that have been occupied by countless rich and powerful politicians, journalists, writers, businesspeople, and others. Many visitors have no idea that Georgetown had already been a thriving port for several decades before the District of Columbia was created as the capital of the new United States in 1791. Remnants of the town’s origins include huge brick warehouses since converted to office, retail, and residential use, and even an imposing, if modestly sized, the neo-classical custom house where merchants once paid their duties. A hidden gem within Georgetown isCady’s Alley, a narrow street bracketed by high-design furniture stores and such.4Nearby is the C&O Canal, built in the early 1800sto connect the Potomac River to the coal fields of the Allegheny Mountains. The canal was recently restored and now offers boat tours that provide glimpses ofGeorgetownlife two centuries ago.
Several adjacent, venerable DC neighborhoods have undergone astonishing changeareLogan Circle, Shaw, and the U Street corridor.WhileLogan Circle was being developed as an upper-middle-class white enclave in the late 19thcentury, Shaw became a center of Black cultural and social life. By the early 20thcentury, U Street, which was lined with jazz clubs, theaters, and restaurants, came to be called “the Black Broadway.” Duke Ellington, who grew up around the corner, gave his first concert (admission: 5 cents) in the True Reformer Building, still standing at 1200 U Street. Meanwhile, the 14thStreet corridor in Logan Circle was known as automobile Row thanks to its numerous attractive car dealerships, with huge picture windows to show off the latest models. All of these areas suffered an economic decline after World War II as governmental and corporate policies encouraged white families to move to the suburbs. In the1960s, the 14thStreet and U Street corridors were badly damaged during the uprisings after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Beginning in the 1990s, however, rapid gentrification—with all the benefits and detriments that come with it—has transformed the entire area, bringing trendy restaurants, lively clubs, and expensive residential projects.One particularly striking recent project is the Atlantic PlumbingApartments, named for the former industrial occupant of the site and designed by Morris Adjmi Architects with Eric Colbert & Associates PC, which boasts distinctive steel cross-bracing.
The National Mall
Of course, no visitor to DC should skip a visit to the National Mall, which has been described as “the nation’s front yard.” Stretching from the U.S. Capitol Grounds past the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial all the way to the Potomac, this approximately two-mile-long public space is home to more than a dozen of the most engaging museums and memorials in the world, including the National Gallery of Art (whose East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, is a modern landmark), the National Air and Space Museum (designed by HOK and now undergoing a comprehensive renovation by Quinn Evans Architects), and the sublimely moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial (designed by Maya Lin). One of the newest additions to the Mall is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by an architectural consortium known as Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroupJJR. The building’s signature element is a bronze-colored filigree shaped like a series of truncated, inverted pyramids inspired by the crown-like pinnacles of carved posts supporting vernacular buildings in Nigeria. The new museum is a marked contrast to the mostly neoclassical stone structures that occupy much of the National Mall and demonstrates how even the most sacred areas of Washington, DC, can gain new life through innovative architecture.
By G. Martin Moeller, Jr., Assoc. AIA