Eric Colbert's Rapport D.C. architect Eric Colbert is ubiquitous. But don't feel bad if you didn't notice.

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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.”

Our Readers Say

LOL.. "no ego". (talent to match?) the architectural potential of 14th street
has been dumbed-down by this architect. info to the neighborhood includes lots of unplayed notes.

Bullshit. The architectural potential of the entire city has been dumbed-down by height restrictions, zoning restrictions, and overzealous preservationists. That's why so much of what we see is unimaginative glass boxes built to maximum allowable height. Everyone wants to maximize usable space, and few want to stand out.

Colbert has done admirable work within regulatory limits and political limits. The fact that developers and citizens groups both find him good to work with speaks volumes about him. And the fact that members of the HPRB routinely praise him and his work says more than your bitter carping.
"The fact that developers and citizens groups both find him good to work with speaks volumes about him."

Actually, those in the preservation community (including his fellow architects) think his work is very mediocre and really wish he'd work harder at making standout buildings that represent their time better. However, as Lydia has correctly assessed, his objective is just to get the buildings approved AND maximize available building space ... which pleases the developers, of course. He doesn't have to build out every single allowable cubic foot of building space, but he does. And that's what the developers love about him. And he makes the buildings so mediocre that now one can find anything to object to about them. They can't be hated. And for the same reason, they can't be loved. You might call his style 'Lymbo' ... a languishing state of style wish offends no one but also does nothing to contribute to the arhictural spirit or beauty of the city.

I am one of Eric's kayaking friends. I have paddled some of the best rivers in the area with him on a regular basis. We find ourselves in fierce class IV white water frequently. He is always a calm, gentle, yet focused and determined presence in the midst of the chaos of a powerful river rapid. Eric is never a show-off. He nearly always comes through the tough passages upright. And he is a very pleasant man to paddle with. It seems his character is similar in both the architectural world and the paddling community.
Eric........Came across a business card from years ago. We met socially somewhere, and the number on the card is 202-526-9370 so I guess this was quite a while ago. I may have been a resident at G-town or maybe working in a clinic there. Anyway, came across this and looked you up on line. My office is in Chevy Chase, live just off Mass Ave. in Bethesda. Would be interesting to see if we remember each other after such a long time. I'm at the above e-mail or 301-229-7455.

Tom Applin

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