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Viewpoint: Is Modern Architecture Right for Georgetown?


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.

Rendering courtesy of EastBanc
Rendering courtesy of EastBanc

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?

Rendering courtesy of EastBanc
Rendering courtesy of EastBanc

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.