Housing Complex

The Historification of Southwest Begins In Earnest

Tiber Island, from the New Southwest.

Remember when we talked about how some of the most difficult cases the Historic Preservation Review Board will have to deal with in the next few years are the ones not everyone thinks of as "historic", like the buildings that came after hundreds of acres of Southwest D.C. got flattened? Well, two have come up lately: The Tiber Island Condos and Coop and Harbour Square, across the street from each other at 4th and N Street SW.

The interesting thing is that it seems to be self-driven—not always the case in D.C., when preservation groups can submit an application for a property whether or not the owner consents. The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly nominated Tiber Island  as a historic landmark back in September, with the support of the coop and condominium association, and the Harbour Square coop association submitted an application on its own behalf last week. If approved by the Board, they couldn't be demolished or marred by incompatible renovations.

Why are they historic? The applications claim a lot of the same attributes, like being "an outstanding example of modernist architecture and urbanism." Harbour Square, designed in the early 1960s by Cloethiel Woodard Smith and landscape architect Dan Kiley, has also been home to a handful of politicians and Supreme Court Justices. Tiber Island, designed by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon, was apparently the first condominium in Washington. The applications give lots more background on the buildings as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.

Say what you want about the architecture—it's hard to argue with that kind of history.

  • http://www.swdcheritage.org Cecille Chen

    When most people think of "historic preservation" they think of structures built 200 years ago. Well, there is a good case to be made for preserving buildings from the recent past because they too are endangered by new development. As they say, people don't know what they have until it's gone. I believe the same applies to Southwest's mid-century modern architecture. Built in the 1960's, Tiber Island and Harbour Square were designed by architects that subscribed to the modernist style of legends such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. You'll see the same clean lines and minimalist aesthetic; wide expanses of glass that bring nature inside the home; beautifully landscaped courtyards lit with modish globe lights that make it a real pleasure to come home. "Heroic Architecture" is a term applied to the Southwest's 1960's style and looking at these buildings, one does get a sense of the heroic. I for one would never want these buildings to be demolished and replaced with the middling, whitebread, gutless architecture that is prevalent is so many commercial developments today.

  • Stephen Smith

    If the units are coops and condos, how can they ever be redeveloped, anyway? Wouldn't every single resident have to agree for it to work?

  • Dan Miller

    I walked by those building every day for a year and a half. I know exactly what I have, and it sucks--they're ugly wastes of space immediately adjacent to a Metro station. Tear them down.

  • Chris bowen

    "Built in the 1960's, Tiber Island and Harbour Square were designed by architects that subscribed to the modernist style of legends such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier."

    Excellent reasons to tear them down. The entirety of the 1960s and 1970s was an unfortunate mistake in the history of building.

  • Jes sayin’

    LeCorbusier was the Hitler of the architects of his time. Well, I guess that ends this argument.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    James Creek still has meatballs for $100.

  • cminus

    As a homeowner in Tiber Island, I oppose landmarking it.

    I suppose that the complex is excellent by the standards of the time it were built, in that the buildings are still structurally sound (rare among modernist buildings, which usually fell apart very quickly). And the high-rise portions make effective use of the building footprints, especially when compared with the surrounding buildings (if we want to rebuild to encourage density near Metro stations, the townhouses north of the Waterfront Metro go first, then the low rises to the east and the garden apartments northwest of Arena Stage). There's no real case to be made to tear down the complex other than possibly aesthetics, and the underlying economics would make that some really expensive aesthetics for the residents.

    But Tiber Island could easily be improved if we're willing to acknowledge a major failure of the design -- the barren, environmentally-unfriendly, courtyard. Harbour Square's courtyard may be better conceived, but Tiber Island's courtyard is the worst feature of the place. Right now, it's very possible that we could remedy the courtyard some day, and many of the younger residents want to, but doing so would be "incompatible" with the original architect's vision of an uninviting expanse.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Stephen Smith

    Yeah it would be hard. But not impossible. They could also vote to allow incompatible additions, I suppose.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    I'm not sure how many of the buildings in Southwest qualify as "urbanist". I walked from the Metro to my colleague's home to pick up some work documents. For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to get into the building. There were no doors that I could find except for what appeared to be emergency exits. I had to call my friend and admit that I had no idea how to get in... she told me I had to walk down the parking ramp (no sidewalk or signs) to get to the lobby attached to the underground garage. The idea that somebody would actually walk to the building obviously never crossed the builder's mind.

  • http://dcjack.org Jack

    There's no end to the "historic preservation" demands; anything, however plain and undistinguished, gets declared "historic", simply because the HPO can dredge up some architect's name and thus give it the appearance of fine architecture, even if it was a routine job done by an ordinary architect. There's even a fancy name for it -- "vernacular" -- meaning that it's utterly undistinguished, built for practicality and economy, not for architectural distinction -- but still, preserve it anyway. Here in Mount Pleasant, every building built before 1950 is designated "contributing", no matter how plain it may be, no matter the utter absence of anything "historical" having taken place there.

    Where's the end to it? Before long, every structure in the District will be declared "historic", and the whole city will be paralyzed.

    A resident here was just told he could not repair his gutters, because the work wasn't being done to historic perfection. Welcome to the paralysis of historic preservation.

  • Thayer-D

    The modern preservation movement came about specifically becasue "hundreds of acres of Southwest D.C. (and every other American city) got flattened" as you say. Becasue erasing history was the only way to free oneself of the chains of history, at least that's how the early modernists such as LeCorbusier and Mies saw it. According to the "modernist pioneers", the fact that we had airplanes and cars meant that the old decorated brick rowhouses where obsolete and from now on we would have to live in sterile concrete apartment blocks serviced by highway ramps.

    Now even this old "Modernist enclave" is historical and they've started to re-build our city streets with pedestrian friendly buildings that are even decorated with modernist motiffs. Thank god we finally stopped destroying our heritage and believing these crazy modernist ideas. I guess we ought to save some of these experiments just to remember how crazy that period was, but since we have so much of it, maybe we could afford to lose these buildings. I'd leave it up to the professional perservationists as to the most important examples of urban renewal infill. To me, they all look depressing.

  • Lance

    @Jack Where's the end to it? Before long, every structure in the District will be declared "historic",

    I hear that's how they do it in Europe ... and why cities such as Paris remain some of the best and beautiful cities on earth. Our piece-meal approach to historic preservation helps engender some of the misunderstandings as those you give light too in your comment. (For example, you don't seem to understand that all pre-50s structures in your HD are contributing because leaving just the best of the old wouldn't do much in the way of preserving the historic character of the neighborhood as a whole.)

    Yes, let's really consider putting into place a historic district overlay to ensure protection of the entire city.

  • Anon

    The modernists from Le Corbusier and Mies to the very school which birthed the movement, famously succeeded in designing single-family homes (though impractical at times - flat roofs? Leaky windows?). Later corporate skyscrapers and public buildings in this style were lauded. (Not all of them, but many.) But this movement often failed spectacularly at building or inspiring multi-unit residential. It's not slighting modernists by making this distinction. Southwest Washington and the buildings in question are classic examples of this last class. Let them be, or fall as they may, but historic preservation is nuts.

  • Nick

    These buildings are incredibly ugly. The waterfront would be much better off if they transitioned to apartments and at some point could be torn down.

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  • EH

    @cminus -

    You have a good point about the empty concrete plaza at Tiber Island. But did you ever see the original plans? it was supposed to have many more elements. I can't recall all of them, but I seem to remember some pavillions or multi-use facilities. But like many designs, developers run out of money and cut things. Or, given the time period, I seem to recall there were zoning issues that prevented building out the design as intended. I would imagine if the building ever wanted to complete the design as intended, the HPO would be supportive.

  • wd

    Many of these comments show exactly why these buildings need historic preservation status.

  • Judith Claire

    If ignorance were against the law...we would have to make a lot of arrests in the comment section. 1.Chloethiel Woodard Smith received the first Centennial Award of the American Institute of Architects, Washington Chapter.She helped change the face of our city. Walk over to see "Chloethiel's Corner" Connecticut and L NW and view the Blake Building and Washington Square. Arthur Cotton Moore got his start in her firm. Go to the MKL Library and review her plans for a wonderful, open plan for the new Shaw Jr. High at 9th and Rhode Island Ave. NW...unfortunately it was considered too expensive and so a bunker was built.Sarah Booth Conroy wrote in the Wash. Post, when she lunched with Chloethiel at the Four Seasons,Chloethiel wanted to discuss the greenery and the windows that start at the ceilings and stop at the floor, as God and Chloethiel know all windows should. Muchismas gracias, Merci beaucoup,Danke schon,and Domo arigato to Ms. Smith for our beloved Harbour Square and all the others.

  • hpo

    Jack, the Mt P homeowner's roofer was told how to replace gutters correctly, not that he couldn't.

  • Paul

    Don't forget that, a couple of decades ago, many people, who I'm sure thought their architectural taste to be above reproach, wanted to and in many cases succeeded in tearing down art deco style buildings. A few decades before that, it was Victorian buildings that were eyesores and needed to go. We can be thankful that the architectural tastes of those people back then didn't succeed in eliminating all Victorian or Art Deco buildings.

    Same goes for modernist architecture.

    You can't lump all modernism into a single basket, as someone commented above, by saying "the entirety of the 1960's and 1970's was an unfortunate mistake".

    I personally believe Harbour Square is not appealing and wouldn't mind if something else was built there - although it's well designed on the interior, the clunky exterior leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, Chloethiel Woodard Smith was a DC pioneer. Being a pioneer architect should not be enough to landmark a building. And I can't think of a single building she designed that I would classify as being worthy of preservation - clunky really does describe her style to me.

    But that's just me. My point is that those of us who are dead sure about modernist architecture would be well served to remember how many Victorian neighborhoods are gone because someone was dead sure about them decades ago.

  • Joe E.

    As a somewhat new resident of SW, I support keeping some of the older buildings preserved (call me strange, but I kind of like mid-century modern/brutalist buildings). The new developments are looking good, but I'd hate to see the a homogenization of the neighborhood 10-15 years down the road where everything is < 20 years old and all looks the same.

  • Eric

    I would be elated to see all of these buildings go. However, I think a good middle ground would be to preserve one of the denser buildings, but not the ground on which it was built so that density can be further promoted this close to a central Metro station.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    From an architectural standpoint, Tiber Island has an admirably pure vision, but from an urban design standpoint Harbour Square's perimeter-block layout and humbler exterior defer to the traditional rowhouses that it incorporates. On the interior, I'd much rather look at Harbour Square's bay windows, woods, and lagoons than the harsh, blank-walled concrete cube at the center of Tiber Island. (Note that Tiber's HPRB application doesn't mention anything about its landscape architecture, quite unlike Harbour's.)

    @Stephen Smith: A co-op would be easier to redevelop than a condo; it obviously depends on the bylaws, but dissolving a co-op in NY state takes a 2/3 vote rather than a unanimous vote. Note that Tiber Island has split ownership: the outer townhouses are condo, while the towers and inner townhouses are a co-op.

    @cminus, glad to hear. The townhouses along M Street could eventually evolve into something more open to the street, perhaps even mixed-use -- just as the townhouses along M St NW have. Freezing them, and that broiling-hot plaza, in their current form would prevent them from evolving to better fit people's needs in the future.

  • Architecture

    I've lived in DC a looooong time and never did I think that these buildings would ever even get close to landmarking.

    Then again, I never thought half the crap that gets landmarked, or tries to get landmarked in this town would (Wisconsin Giant, I am looking at you).

    Tiber island? Really? The dorms my kid lived in in college, built in the 90s look exactly the same, yet this is supposed to be a rare example of modern architecture?

    By that metric, the thousands of apartment buildings that dot the Moscow suburbs built in the 50's should also be landmarked. I have never gone to Russia, or what used to be East Germany and say "Man...now that is some architecture worth perserving".

    DC is no longer the place it was 50 years ago. At the time these were built and until 1995 the City hemmoraged people, became the murder capital of the nation and lost itself into poverty. The last 16 years has seen a new DC and forever reserving these structures (which aren't worth a tinkers damn in preserving anyway) is incongruious with the international city the District has come. Are we really going to chop off an enormously valuable chunk of land that has both water and metro access to preserve a bunch of Soviet era tenanment housing?

  • cc

    From living in the Carrollsburg (which looks exactly like Tiber Island), I can tell you that we can slap historic preservation on these buildings, but that won't keep them from burning down due to electrical fires.

  • Judith Claire

    It is hard to take seriously the thoughts of people who do not have real, full names. Why be shy?

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