600 5th Street, NW
Dear Ms. Mahaffie:
In its public meeting of 18 March conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a concept design for alterations and additions to the Jackson Graham Building, currently the headquarters of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), located at 600 Fifth Street, NW (case number SL 21-081). Expressing general support for the proposal to renovate, reclad, and add four stories to the existing nine-story office building, the Commission provided the following comments and recommendations for the development of the concept design.
The Commission members expressed appreciation for the thorough analysis of the project’s context in Judiciary Square, and for the architectural sophistication of the proposed facade treatments. While endorsing the general massing—subject to refinements of secondary volumetric elements such as the penthouse, recessed terraces, and projecting bays—they raised concern with the role of the building as it contributes to the architectural frame of Judiciary Square. They observed that the existing buildings forming this frame, while not all architecturally distinguished, are generally of pale- colored masonry, simple in overall form, with consistent heights and step-backs; this context forms a quiet background for the historic public buildings and green public spaces within the Judiciary Square core. They commented that the proposed building design presents a series of incremental departures from this established pattern of material, scale, and building form, and they questioned whether it would fulfill its appropriate role as a background building. In their discussion, they acknowledged that the architectural composition needs interest and articulation in order to avoid being featureless, to respond to the varied context, and to bring vitality to the urban experience; some members supported the collage-like composition of additive pavilions and recessed terraces, while others suggested more simplicity of form. They identified the penthouse and the east side facing the historic Pension Building as the areas of greatest concern.
For the development of the design of the east elevation, the Commission members suggested having two projecting elements at the lower floors arranged symmetrically in order to reinforce the relationship of the new building to the Pension Building’s west facade. They noted that the terraces recessed into the building volume are big, emphatic gestures that imply a public function which they would not have as private tenant spaces, and they observed that these would optimally be places with public access and use. Characterizing the overall design of the building as self-assured, they found the tiered composition of the top of the building to be tentative; they recommended further study of the top stories in order to minimize the impression of reflexive, incidental massing by reducing the number of step-backs and deliberately integrating the top into the overall composition of the building.
For the design of the building’s cladding, the Commission members recommended a simplification of enclosure types; some expressed support for the generally glassy skin proposed, while others recommended that the building be limestone such as is used in nearby buildings. In general, they recommended adding limestone to the building’s exterior, possibly within the curtainwall system and particularly at places of public contact, such as the exposed columns, the main entrances, the base of the building, and the projecting pavilions. They recommended against the use of wood-patterned cladding for the terrace soffits, which they cautioned is a design idea that will soon seem dated. They endorsed the proposal to reconfigure the building’s relationship to the surrounding context by raising the grade and opening the frontages to retail activity and outdoor seating, which they said will contribute to the neighborhood’s urban vitality.
The Commission looks forward to further concept-level review of this prominent project at Judiciary Square, within the city’s monumental core. As always, the staff is available to assist you in the development of the design.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Jane Galbraith Mahaffie, Principal
655 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 830
Washington, DC 20001
cc: Jon Pickard, Pickard Chilton
Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA
David Maloney, D.C. Historic Preservation Office