Fourteen years into its career in Washington, the architecture firm of Eric Colbert & Associates found what’s likely to be its final resting place: The former St. Mary’s School for Girls, a handsome, symmetrical brick building a block from the hulking Verizon Center on 5th Street NW. There’s nothing on the front to indicate who works there, not even a small sign. This is a set of designers who like to blend into the background.
The interior, though, is pretty special. The firm designed its own space, and it’s like something out of an art magazine: A single open room with polished but creaky hardwood floors, a three-story high ceiling, and light pouring in through tall windows. A massive painting with generous use of gold leaf hangs on the far wall. The workspaces are separated from the central corridor by high white walls, but these are no typical office cubes: Most desks have sightlines to the rest, so their inhabitants can yell across the room to a coworker. (Not that they do. The space is usually deathly quiet.)
Colbert himself has an office two flights up, in a cozy space that feels like an attic. To check in on his underlings on the main floor, he need only walk over to a low wall, stepping gingerly on a stack of blueprints on the floor. “I try not to make too many speeches,” he jokes.
The firm moved into the old school 16 years ago. Since then, shiny Colbert buildings have cropped up all over the city’s most desirable central neighborhoods, from Adams Morgan to Dupont Circle to Chinatown. He got a good chunk of the last condo boom, between 2004 and 2007, and has cleaned up even more of the work in the latest apartment-building bonanza, fueled in D.C. by the health of the federal government while real estate markets around the country languished. Right now, Colbert & Associates is responsible for four projects underway around the 14th and U streets NW corridor, two on Georgia Avenue NW, and others in Southwest, NoMa, and Shaw. At this point, he’s designed enough buildings along the city’s spine of gentrification that Elinor Bacon, a member of the Historic Preservation Review Board, called him “the architectural god of 14th Street,” in a hearing about a new building that will replace a squat post office and Chinese takeout place (right before she lamented that the project “just didn’t have that Colbert magic”).
Many of D.C.’s neighborhoods, built in fits and spurts as the city’s grid spread, are epigraphs to residential developers who took one marketable product and replicated it again and again: Harry Wardman is responsible for large tracts in Columbia Heights and Bloomingdale, Robert Fleming for pieces of Dupont, and Charles Gessford for blocks of Capitol Hill.
More than anyone else in the market right now, Colbert is that guy for the urbanite, upwardly mobile, design-conscious but not excessively artsy D.C. denizen. He designs for people who make up the 23 percent increase in 20- to 34-year-olds living here since 2000.
The big names of D.C.’s architectural past all had distinct styles. You don’t have to be a trained historian to spot their signatures: Wardman’s front porches, Gessford’s attic pediments. Colbert, on the other hand, prides himself on fitting in—an odd boast for a designer, who might presumably seek to stand out. But this explains why Colbert is so sought after: To actually get anything done in 21st-century D.C., it’s a lot easier to just copy what’s around you.
Colbert’s success is in part a story about Washington’s politics and regulations. This is a city, after all, where hyper-empowered neighborhood associations and appointed boards feel entitled to a say over the size and look of new developments. (Since the historic fabric of the city is so strong already, deviations from that standard are seen as insults.) Colbert, whose 50-odd projects include a few excellent buildings and far more that are just good enough, is the architect we deserve.
Like many D.C. residents outside the federal orbit, Colbert arrived in the District by accident.
He grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., wanting to be an artist. However, advised by elders that that was a good way to go hungry and pulled in a more technical direction by his engineering-professor father, Colbert settled on architecture as a compromise. Then, as now, the Shangri-La for ambitious young architects was New York City, and Colbert says he’d always planned to end up there. A visit to a friend in the District in the 1970s, though, prompted him to give another city a try.
“D.C. looked like a fun place, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just spend a few years here,’” says Colbert, whose deep voice often breaks into a resounding laugh at the end of his sentences. “And then I came down here and never moved.”