Photo by Rendering courtesy of the Levy Group
A detail from a February rendering of the proposed building at the heating plant site
A detail from a February rendering of the proposed building at the heating plant site

Viewpoint

By Ray Kukulski

Currently, three new buildings are proposed at the southwest and southeast entrances of our historic village. As you can see in the accompanying renderings, these buildings do not match the style, color and character of historic Georgetown. In the past, review and approval of new construction in Georgetown has proceeded on a case-by-case basis with a few members of the Citizens Association of Georgetown and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E representing the views of our village before the Old Georgetown Board and, at times, the full Commission of Fine Arts. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever asked our community as a whole if Georgetown should retain its historic character. I’m doing so now.

A mid-2015 rendering of plans for the Valero site (Photo by: Rendering courtesy of EastBanc) A mid-2015 rendering of plans for the Valero site

The Old Georgetown Board and the Commission of Fine Arts, the board’s parent body, are responsible for review and approval of the aesthetic character of new or renovated construction in the historic district. They also consider whether a proposed design is compatible with the historic fabric of the community, which does not preclude contemporary designs.

The Old Georgetown Board is a panel of three architects selected by the Commission of Fine Arts, which consists of seven presidential appointees with expertise in the arts. The board’s three members provide guidance to the Commission of Fine Arts on the design of new or renovated buildings in Georgetown.

Three projects under review would occupy key gateway sites: a residential project replacing the West Heating Plant at 29th Street NW and the C&O Canal, at a southeast entrance to Georgetown; a replacement for the Valero gas station across from the Four Seasons Hotel, also at a southeast entrance to Georgetown; and a building to replace the Exxon gas station on M Street NW near Key Bridge at the southwest entrance to Georgetown.

These buildings are all to be modern in design and color and will not blend in or be compatible with the industrial heritage of the Georgetown waterfront south of M Street or the west end of the commercial corridor adjacent to the Car Barn. Washington Harbour and the House of Sweden (as well as the adjacent building to the north) are modern, but they are between the river’s edge and K Street. Buildings to the north generally blend in with a red-brick palette and compatible architecture.

Do Georgetowners want new buildings to blend in with the historic fabric of our village, or is modern architecture with materials that do not match the traditional color palette or design of our late-19th- or early-20th-century buildings acceptable? Do international visitors come to immerse themselves in history or to see modern architecture they could see at home?

A 2014 rendering of the project at the Exxon site (Photo by: Rendering courtesy of EastBanc) A 2014 rendering of the project at the Exxon site

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, the Citizens Association of Georgetown and ANC 2E all work to retain our brick sidewalks and our historic buildings. The Fine Arts Commission requires homeowners to repair original windows rather than replace them with double pane windows that look original. Yet all of them support the introduction of incompatible modern architecture and materials into our historic village. Red brick, stone and wood are the common building materials of our historic buildings, as they were the building materials most available before the introduction of concrete, steel and large sheets of glass. Should new structures here use these modern materials and be designed to take advantage of them, as is done in other parts of the city, or should historic Georgetown remain uniquely historic?

The BID is proposing signs to inform visitors that they’ve arrived in Georgetown. Imagine a sign reading “Welcome to Historic Georgetown, 1751” adjacent to a modern building clad in marble or black glass! Shouldn’t our iconic historic village look historic?

Your views on these questions are vitally important to provide guidance to decision makers as they determine the future look and feel of our world-known historic village. Please offer your comments following this article on whether you consider modern-looking buildings such as these three projects appropriate for the Georgetown Historic District.

Ray Kukulski, a Georgetown resident, is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and a former president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

A version of this Viewpoint piece also appears in the April 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

19 Comments For This Article

Anonymous

The OGB consists of 3 people?! That's the first problem here. How can 3 people represent this community?

Anonymous

As a native Washingtonian (3 generations), I believe Georgetown has always maintained its connection to its historic past and should continue to do do. The proposed projects may be meeting a perceived need for additional residential space in Georgetown, but they will cause problems on many levels for the community. The development on the Exxon station at Key Bridge is the most egregious in that it will exacerbate the already huge traffic problems which plague that intersection. No matter what the DOT does in terms of lane changes, the traffic backups are horrendous and dangerous. I would object to the modern architecture more if there had been a historic structure in its place and it was replaced with a square box. However, these "boxes" are also designed to fit as many residences as legally possible into the buildings. More importantly, I object to the density at the sites which will only create more issues for parking and access in what used to be a quaint village, reminiscent of Georgetown's history as a waterfront port. We must address the worsening traffic issues in the context of the development the city and the Board has condoned in Georgetown. And more bicycle lanes is not the solution.

Anonymous

The proposed building for the Exxon site looks like a Federal penitentiary, and the proposed building for the Valero site looks like stacked shipping containers, while the proposed building for the Heating Plant site looks like it is still under construction.

David Miller

Thank you Ray Kukulski for succinctly expressing so many of the same concerns that virtually all my friends and neighbors in Georgetown feel. Georgetown is a very historic and unique location that should be preserved at all costs in both the upkeep of its existing infrastructure as well as approval of all new structures. The architecture of the three buildings proposed should be reconsidered to uphold the history and and uniqueness of Georgetown.

Anonymous

It is nice to have the modern... it shows a progress in civilization, the original historic architecture in Georgetown was american Indian mud huts..but it has progressed to the present... What decade in time do we selected to see historical begins. It show progress over the decade and that should not stop. Modern is wonderful if done right. Building materials and best practices change continuously, we do not want to be a Disney land were we stop on one certain decade in time.

Anonymous

If done correctly, modern works. The Valero proposal looks like an East German cold war building. Very ugly.

Don Crockett

I disagree with "Anonymous" that "it is nice to have modern." Indeed, the whhole concept of preserving our historic village was to freeze it in time. Those who love "modern" may simply go a few blocks West to Rosslyn, North to Calvert Street, and East to the Watergate to find all the "mordern" they want. A horrendous example of a lapse in judgement by the Old Georgetown Board is the relatively new "ultra modern" rear entrance to the historic building on the south-east corner of M and 31st. It stands out as a sore thumb. We certainly don't need any more of that type of incoompatible architecture anywhere in Georgetown

The Heimbolds

Thank you Ray: You so eloquently express the sentiments of those who care about the historic fabric of Georgetown and not the commercialization of our residential space. Yes. The current renderings of the modern infill buildings represent an egregious attempt to overlay a crude modern architectural encroachment on our precious village. People come to see our historic village and not how the most aggressive modern overlay can obliterate it. It needs to be stopped in order not lose our architectural character and the architectural reasons we are special and worth visiting. Margaret Heimbold

Kate Whitmore

I am a life-long Georgetowner. I believe the authorities in charge of defending the Old Georgetown Act (1950) have lost touch with the spirit of this Act and are increasingly bending to the wishes of developers who do not understand or appreciate the value of a historic district. But it should not be the developers job to ensure historic integrity: their work should be informed by clear guidelines and vision. These buildings, particularly the gateway structures proposed for M Street and Canal Road, do not reflect or complement Georgetown's historic fabric, which is its only real currency. Georgetown BID's own 2028 Plan states: "To emphasize that Georgetown is unique, the sense of arrival (...) should be significantly enhanced and made distinctive. It should be informative and complimentary to the character of Georgetown, creating interest and anticipation of the experiences awaiting the visitor as well as a welcoming and familiar return for the community’s workers and residents." Bravo to the BID for taking on important transportation, streetscape and public space issues. But where is the Master Plan that will provide the overarching structure and context for the BID's efforts?
As to the original, neglected "Old Georgetown 1751" sign: it was uprooted long ago and last seen (at least by me) leaning against a chunk of crumbling concrete next to the gas station one of the proposed buildings is supposed to replace. Let's hope this is not a portent of things to come!

James Canning

The proposed buildings in the context of historic Georgetown are hideous.

Richard Hinds

The choice is not between preservation of historic buildings in Georgetown and new modern buildings. It is extremely difficult to obtain permission to demolish any historic building in Georgetown (even a derelict heating plant)or to make any alteration to such a building that dues not preserve its historic character. The article is dealing with potential new construction on the site of two gas stations neither of which are historic and do not add anything to historic Georgetown's character and a decommissioned heating plant built in 1946 that is "historic" only because built before 1950. Replacing these properties with residential housing would help to revitalize Georgetown and add some refreshing new architecture to the mix. While people can disagree about the merits of the specific proposals, indeed the OBG voted down the design for the heating plant mentioned in the article, I do not think we should seek to freeze new architecture in Georgetown to the red brick model that the author seems to prefer. Even in Georgetown there is room for elegant, interesting architecture on the few non-historic sites available for development.

Jerry A. McCoy

The Georgetown Neighborhood Library's Peabody Room has been serving as steward of one of the two "Old Georgetown 1751" signs since 2011 when Mr. Kukulski helped me rescue it (and its VERY heavy attached 10' pole) after it was thrown off the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge down into Rock Creek Park.

The companion sign next to the M Street Bridge is still in place but leaning precariously.

Hopefully these two signs can be repaired and reinstalled to bookend a sympathetically designed structure that will replace the gas station.

Simon Jacobsen

You can still have modern buildings but with contextualized exteriors of appropriate materials, proportions and sensitive detailing. There is a pretty good example already up at the corner of Wisconsin and Q street at the TDB Bank where Reed Electrical used to be. Everybody won on that project.

We need a refresher course in the eloquence of Federal period architecture. Our façades can embrace these principles in how they address the street and the immediate surrounding buildings, but by all means have at it inside.

Rather than lowering our standards, why don't we raise the standards of the architects and designers who think they have the chops to design something here. Or even better, demand that the developers raise their game too. Good design doesn't cost any more money, it is often just the fees of the architects and that should not be in play here.

Simon Jacobsen

Patrick Tisdale

I am sympathetic to the view that our community should preserve the the best of Georgetown's unique look and feel. But, as noted by others, the Georgetown we see today is in truth a comparably recent interpretation. Brick houses replaced the early very small wooden structures of the 'original Georgetown'. The names of our streets have changed, as have the materials that pave them and the bricking of the walks along their sides. The East run of O Street (formerly Beale) had it's elevation dropped by some 12 feet between 31st and Wisconsin. The trees that planted along these streets are as likely to be imported species as domestic. Accepted change. This all said - the heating plant in current form is uninspired ugly. It was ugly the day is was built, and its design never resonated with any era of 'Georgetown". So please, while we should discuss the design that should replace it, I encourage no further attempts to preserve what we see today.

Regards -

Anonymous

As a new resident who lived here in the 70's and who has been deeply involved in restoration work on a 250 year old family home before moving here and other public restoration projects I feel very strongly that Georgetown should retain its historic architecture. It is one of the things that makes it so special.

Tatiana Gfoeller

In a country less than 300 years old, Georgetown stands as a rare and unique reminder that we DO have history, traditions, and sophisticated, old world style. that is what makes this village so special. For those who like modern residential architecture, practically the whole USA beckons with a myriad possibilities. But Georgetown is alone and if once its unique character is altered, it will be impossible to recreate. The unique charm will be gone. That feeling that we are living in a village within a city will be gone as our boundaries melt into that city. Dare I say it, property values may fall? And even if they do not, the emotional value of living in the 18th and 21st centuries simultaneously will be gone. Let us not destroy what it will be impossible to build again.

Michael Gfoeller

I agree completely with the views so eloquently expressed by Mr. Ray Kukulski. Georgetown's unique character is based upon architectural preservation. The introduction of major new modern structures into the fabric of Georgetown would devalue and distort this character. Without a doubt it would also lower property values, as Georgetown gradually became indistinguishable from a typical modern city. Any new structures at the proposed sites should definitely be consistent with Georgetown's historical and architectural heritage.

Anonymous

I think the introduction of this modern building does real damage to Georgetown's historic district. Additions should be consistent with architecture from the time that defines the district. This does not.

Anonymous

Georgetown is not comprised of a one time 1751 time period of style only, but a variety of architectural styles that was appropriate for various time periods. Contemporary styles should be implemented at new construction sites so as not to dilute the authenticity of existing historic buildings. 50 years from now, our contemporary style will be considered historic.

Georgetown as a physical museum/historic site, is somewhat similar to the Air&Space museum with different styles of aircraft for different time periods

It is not the communities decision which design is appropriate (CFA decision), however us residents should expect architects to design contemporary styles that work in context with the existing authentic historical styles. They do not have to be necessarily ugly, but they should definitely not be a replication, because it would be a facade of history (like some other communities do).

Modern style is a post-industrial early to mid-20th century style. Contemporary is of the current time.

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