411 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Dear Ms. Occhetti:
In its meeting of 17 March, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a concept submission for a new three-story building for the National Democratic Club, to be located at 411 New Jersey Avenue, SE (case number SL 16-061). Expressing fundamental concerns about the proposed design, the Commission did not take an action and provided the following comments.
The Commission members observed that this project for a new building on a highly prominent, undeveloped site offers an exceptional opportunity to create a compelling institutional presence. Observing that the reciprocal views with the U.S. Capitol complex are protected by the likely undevelopable open land surrounding the adjacent railroad tunnel portal, they recommended that the new building take advantage of its spectacular location. They acknowledged the zoning- and code-related difficulties in composing an important visible facade on what is considered a party wall, but they found the proposed design to be inadequate in resolving these issues and realizing the inherent potential of the site. They suggested that the club work with the railroad and the District of Columbia government to provide flexibility in treating the north elevation, such as by negotiating an agreement for adding windows to articulate this facade, or possibly by purchasing a narrow strip of the adjacent railroad property in order to alleviate the regulatory constraints.
For the architecture of the building, the Commission members questioned the basic historicist design, characterizing it as a pastiche of Romanesque Revival elements without a demonstrable understanding of the materials, detailing, and construction that would achieve the quality promised by this stylistic approach. In general, they recommended a less static and more nuanced facade informed by a better integration of the interior layout and the exterior design: for example, they suggested that the large third-floor meeting room could be more clearly expressed on the exterior; that the building entrance could be recessed to provide shelter for visitors; and that the interior arrangement of the core and service elements could be adjusted to provide more flexible and usable space. They expressed concern that the presentation lacked sufficient information about the urban and historic context, suggesting that the design would be improved with analysis of the proportions, rhythm, scale, and character of the surrounding buildings and viewsheds.
The Commission urged the project team to develop a design commensurate with the great prominence of the site and importance of the program. The Commission looks forward to review of the next submission, and the staff is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Aimee Occhetti, First Vice President
National Democratic Club
30 Ivy Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
cc: Jane Nelson, Nelson Architects
David Maloney, D.C. Historic Preservation Office