Hon. Billie Tsien, Chair
Hon. Hazel Ruth Edwards, Vice Chair
Hon. Peter Cook
Hon. Rodney Mims Cook, Jr.
Hon. James McCrery
Hon. Justin Garrett Moore
Hon. Duncan Stroik
Thomas E. Luebke, Secretary
Frederick J. Lindstrom, Assistant Secretary
Mary Catherine Bogard
A. Approval of the minutes of the 17 June meeting. Secretary Luebke reported that the minutes of the June meeting were circulated to the Commission members in advance, and minor corrections have been noted. Upon a motion by Mr. Stroik with second by Mr. Moore, the Commission approved the minutes. Mr. Luebke said the minutes will be posted on the Commission’s website.
B. Dates of next meetings. Secretary Luebke presented the dates for upcoming Commission meetings, as previously published: 15 September, 21 October, and 18 November 2021. He noted that no meeting is scheduled in August, and the September meeting is scheduled on a Wednesday to avoid conflicting with a religious holiday.
C. Proposed 2022 schedule of meetings and submission deadlines for the Commission and Old Georgetown Board. Secretary Luebke presented the proposed schedule of meetings and submission deadlines for calendar year 2022. The Commission meeting dates would be the third Thursday of each month except August and December; the meetings of the Old Georgetown Board would be on the first Thursday of each month except January and August. He noted that dates could be adjusted in the future if necessary. Upon a motion by Mr. Moore with second by Mr. R.M. Cook, the Commission adopted the proposed schedule.
D. Report on the pre-meeting site inspections. Secretary Luebke reported the Commission’s inspection the previous day of several Smithsonian sites on the National Mall that are in the process of being reviewed by the Commission, including the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum that is on today’s agenda (see item II.B); five of the members were present. Chair Tsien suggested that comments from the Commission members could be provided in conjunction with the Hirshhorn review.
II. Submissions and Reviews
Secretary Luebke introduced the three appendices for Commission action. Drafts of the appendices had been circulated to the Commission members in advance of the meeting.
Appendix I – Government Submissions Consent Calendar: Mr. Lindstrom reported that the only change to the draft appendix is to revise the first recommendation, concerning temporary access and support facilities at the Lincoln Memorial while its undercroft is being renovated. Based on further discussions with the National Park Service staff, this recommendation now includes a request for additional documentation and information on phasing, along with clarification of the project scope. Upon a motion by Mr. Moore with second by Mr. McCrery, the Commission approved the revised Government Submissions Consent Calendar.
Appendix II – Shipstead-Luce Act Submissions: Ms. Batcheler said that two cases listed on the draft appendix have been removed and are being held open for consideration in a future month (case numbers SL 21-135 and 21-144). The unfavorable recommendations for four projects have been changed to be favorable subject to conditions (SL 21-131, 21-132, 21-142, and 21-153); she noted that one of these changes occurred within the past day and was not yet incorporated into the revised appendix that was circulated. She said that the recommendations for nine projects are subject to further coordination with the applicants, and she requested authorization to finalize these recommendations when the outstanding issues are resolved. Upon a motion by Mr. McCrery with second by Dr. Edwards, the Commission approved the revised Shipstead-Luce Act Appendix. (See agenda item II.G for an additional Shipstead-Luce Act submission.)
Appendix III – Old Georgetown Act Submissions: Ms. Bogard reported that no changes have been made to the draft appendix, which has 31 projects. Upon a motion by Ms. Tsien with second by Mr. McCrery, the Commission approved the Old Georgetown Act Appendix.
At this point, the Commission departed from the order of the agenda to consider items II.D and II.F.2. Secretary Luebke said that the Commission had identified these submissions as ones that could be approved without presentations.
D. D.C. Department of Transportation
CFA 15/JUL/21-3, Pennsylvania Avenue from 17th to 21st Streets, NW. Street reconstruction, streetscape improvements, and new bicycle lanes. Final. (Previous: CFA 19/NOV/20-4) Secretary Luebke noted that the Commission had previously reviewed this project at the concept stage. Mr. Moore supported approving the current submission without a presentation, but he suggested adding a request for further study of the ramped curb cuts at the pedestrian crosswalks; he observed that the drawings suggest possible problems with their alignments and with obstructions such as bollards and light poles. He said that these transition points should be designed so that the pedestrian circulation is open and accessible to the extent possible. Upon a motion by Mr. McCrery with second by Mr. R.M. Cook, the Commission approved the final design with this recommendation.
F. D.C. Department of General Services
2. CFA 15/JUL/21-6, DC Preparatory Academy Public Charter School at Wilkinson Elementary School (currently the DC Infrastructure Academy), 2330 Pomeroy Road, SE. Building modernization and alterations. Concept. Upon a motion by Mr. Moore with second by Mr. R.M. Cook, the Commission approved the concept submission.
The Commission returned to the order of the agenda with item II.B.
B. Smithsonian Institution
CFA 15/JUL/21-1, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW. Sculpture Garden expansion and renovation. Final. (Previous: CFA 16/MAY/19-2) Secretary Luebke introduced the proposed final design for the renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden on the National Mall. He noted the Commission’s approval of the concept in May 2019, with support for the comprehensive renovation of the garden to bring much-needed improvements to the space. In that review, the Commission had supported the proposed spatial organization of three differentiated zones, characterized by a lawn, a pool, and a grove of trees, for the display of different types of sculpture. The Commission had also supported the addition of stone walls to define these spaces, providing a contrast to the austerity of the original concrete walls; the Commission had recommended further study of the character for the stone walls with the goal of functioning primarily as settings for the sculpture, and also recommended studying the configuration of the pool, stage platform, and audience spaces, along with adding more trees to define a sequence of outdoor rooms under a continuous canopy of shade.
Mr. Luebke said that the historic preservation review process has continued since the previous review, resulting in a determination in 2020 that the historic significance of the Sculpture Garden includes its first renovation by Lester Collins, completed in 1981, in addition to the original design by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM in the early 1970s. The design revisions resulting from the historic preservation process include adjusting the central pool to match the historic footprint, and the proposal for an additional pool that could be converted to serve as an audience space.
Mr. Luebke said that the Commission members inspected the mockup of the stone walls that is currently installed on the site. He noted that public comments have been received for this project, which have been circulated to the Commission members. He asked Ann Trowbridge, Associate Director for Planning at the Smithsonian, to begin the presentation.
Ms. Trowbridge emphasized that the current design responds to the Commission’s previous comments from the concept review, as well as to comments from the Commission staff and experts in landscape design, historic preservation, and modern art. She introduced Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, to continue the presentation.
Ms. Chiu said that the Hirshhorn’s physical form has long invited questions of how the museum design can itself be a work of art, and she noted a comment at the Commission’s previous review that the Sculpture Garden should be understood as a palimpsest of work by very talented designers. She also noted that the nature of artwork has been evolving since the museum’s creation, becoming bigger, bolder, and more accessible; the Sculpture Garden needs to respond to this shift in scale in order to continue fulfilling the Hirshhorn’s mission of presenting and supporting the work of modern and contemporary artists. She cited a recent example of images projected onto the facade of the circular museum building to create a large-scale artwork, which she said has inspired the proposed entrance to the Sculpture Garden from the Mall, intended to attract more of the Mall’s visitors to enter the garden.
Ms. Chiu noted that Gordon Bunshaft, the Hirshhorn’s original architect, had a deep interest in Japanese art; he frequently collaborated with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, visited a Zen garden in Japan, and photographed a Japanese stacked stone wall that is comparable to the current proposal. She said that Bunshaft’s design for the sunken Sculpture Garden, opened in 1974, provided generously scaled but not universally accessible entrances, and the hot microclimate within the Sculpture Garden was problematic. Within a decade, the space was renovated by landscape architect Lester Collins, who was also a student of Asian design, to improve the accessibility and microclimate. The result was additional lawn and plantings, improved shade, and a choreographed circulation path to give the Sculpture Garden the character of smaller outdoor rooms, or “galleries,” for the display of art. Ramped access was provided, and the inner partition wall that had served as a major boundary in Bunshaft’s design was reduced in importance. An underground passage, now closed, had crossed below Jefferson Drive to connect the Sculpture Garden to the museum’s plaza.
Ms. Chiu said that now, 40 years after the renovation by Collins, the need is apparent to address the Sculpture Garden’s shortcomings and programmatic needs. The selected designer is Hiroshi Sugimoto, an artist and architect; the Hirshhorn held an exhibit of his artwork in 2006, with an installation that related closely to the building’s architecture, and in 2018 he designed the renovation of the Hirshhorn’s lobby to make it more engaging and welcoming for visitors. Citing Mr. Sugimoto’s deep understanding of the Hirshhorn’s mission and goals, she said that his involvement would be fitting as the next stage in the evolution of the Sculpture Garden.
Ms. Chiu said that Mr. Sugimoto’s response to the architecture and curatorial needs is to introduce stacked stone walls that would be secondary to the historic spatial framework established by Bunshaft and Collins. The design for the stone walls would be site-specific while drawing on traditional Japanese techniques developed in collaboration with master masons. She presented photographs of other examples of stacked stone walls on the Mall and adjacent areas. She said that the pre-modern appearance of the stone walls would provide a striking backdrop for the modern masterworks to be displayed in the east area of the Sculpture Garden, including works by Rodin and Lipchitz; in combination with the austere concrete walls, the exhibit areas would provide the curatorial flexibility that is currently lacking.
Ms. Chiu said that the sunken central gallery would be a flexible space that would accommodate performance art as well as the display of sculpture. The Hirshhorn’s first art exhibition of live performances was held in 2018, and she said that performance art has now become an integral part of the exhibition program, providing a direct connection between audiences and artists. On the north side of the central gallery, the original partition wall would be rebuilt as a stacked stone wall, serving as a backdrop to the reflecting pool and central space; she said that the stone would provide better acoustics for performances, while also relating to the adjacent areas to the east and west. She summarized that the central gallery would be a place for intimate engagement between art and visitors.
Ms. Chiu said that the proposed west gallery could be transformed to accommodate site-specific sculpture installations, and the space could also accommodate programming such as film festivals or events for school groups. She concluded that the current proposal is the natural evolution of the historic designs by Bunshaft and Collins, which have been carefully documented by the Smithsonian; the proposal preserves and builds upon the past while providing enhancements to bring the Sculpture Garden to the 21st century, consistent with the Hirshhorn’s mission to exhibit the most compelling art of our time.
The presentation continued with videotaped remarks by Mr. Sugimoto, who spoke from the garden of the Odawara Art Foundation’s Enoura Observatory in Japan. He emphasized that Bunshaft was greatly influenced by Japanese stone gardens and dry gardens in developing the design for the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden. Mr. Sugimoto cited his own experience with Japanese garden design and his intent to revive the spirit of Bunshaft’s design while restructuring it; his design for the Enoura Observatory provides an example of a modern Japanese garden that is based on traditional principles. He said that the proposed stone walls would help to emphasize the meaning of the modern sculptures to be exhibited. He described the intended experience of walking through the underground passage from the Hirshhorn plaza and emerging into the Sculpture Garden with a view toward water and the partition wall; he compared this to the tunnel at the Enoura Observatory that emerges into a view of the landscape and ocean. He summarized that his design proposal for the Hirshhorn applies his decades of experience with Japanese dry garden design.
Following the conclusion of the videotape remarks, Felix Ade of YUN Architecture presented the proposal in greater depth. He emphasized the importance of the relationship between the museum building and the Sculpture Garden, although they are separated by a road; an important design goal is to strengthen the connection between them. He said that the garden retains the symmetry and strong elements of the Bunshaft design, while the garden is also broken up into separate areas by the later plantings and paths of the Collins renovation. He noted that Bunshaft’s design references Japanese Zen gardens, while Collins’ work overlays Chinese and Japanese garden influences. He said that the historic features and Asian-based principles have served as the inspiration for the proposal, which is intended to continue the dialogue between architectural elements and landscape, and between geometrical and organic elements,
Mr. Ade provided an overview of the proposed layout. The central north–south axis would be marked by the south overlook along Jefferson Drive and an enlarged north overlook on the Mall; within the garden, in the most deeply sunken area, a reflecting pool would be on the axis. Between the north overlook and the pool, a wide allée would provide flexible space for changing exhibits. The west gallery would feature an open lawn for added flexibility, accommodating monumentally scaled installations including earthworks. The east side would be a sequence of varied gallery spaces at a smaller scale, including a space specifically designed for the display of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Further toward each end, at the Mall grade, the east and west aprons would have overlook areas and robust landscaping; he emphasized that these aprons are considered part of the garden.
Mr. Ade said that the major entrances to the garden would be at the north and south overlooks. The ramped entrance sequence would be relocated to the west side, configured to provide barrier-free access from both the Mall on the north and the museum plaza to the south; the two upper ramps would converge at a small overlook, with the route continuing down to the west gallery level. The opening from the Mall to the north overlook would be expanded to match the width of Bunshaft’s original staircase opening. The center gallery would provide shade and stepped seating areas at the new reflecting pool, which could be converted into a stage for performances. On the south side of the center gallery, gently curving metal walls are proposed to frame the entrance to the reopened underground passage, giving the appearance of embracing the surroundings. Consistent with Bunshaft’s design, stairs at the south end of the passage would lead up to the museum plaza beneath the raised building; the opening would be enlarged to bring more daylight into the passage. He presented a series of perspective drawings of the proposal, including views from within the Sculpture Garden and from the museum building’s north balcony.
Landscape architect Faye Harwell of Rhodeside & Harwell presented the landscape proposal. She said that the perspective renderings illustrate the tree canopy as it begins to mature, while also conveying the hardscape and textures that are intended, including the patinated bronze, polished stainless steel, and reflective surface of the water. Many of the proposed materials are historically inspired; she indicated the elm trees from Bunshaft’s design, as well as the maple, pine, and cherry trees added by Collins. She said that the proposal incorporates the Commission’s previous advice to emphasize the tree canopy as a ceiling plane to define the gallery spaces, particularly on the east side; she indicated the tightly spaced grove of fifteen red maples along with three pines proposed for this area, sited to allow for visitor circulation and the placement of the sculptures beneath a shady canopy. The west gallery would have a more open glade of ten Kentucky coffeetrees; the central gallery would have clusters of katsuras, maples, and kousa dogwoods to provide a broad canopy. Soil for the trees would extend beneath the paved areas. She said that the differing landscape treatments in each of the zones is intended to correspond to their different programmatic uses. In response to the Commission’s previous concern with insufficient variety of plantings, the proposal now includes nine types of trees and forty types of groundcover. She added that the selection of specific cultivars has been coordinated with the Smithsonian’s garden staff, and seventy percent of the plants would be native species.
Ms. Harwell said that the seasonality of the tree palette has been carefully studied to provide year-round interest; she presented a chart illustrating the branching, flowers, and the leaf color and texture. A unified concept for textures is intended to complement the exhibited sculptures, and the design of the ground plane is conceived as “stylized naturalism.” Most of the flowering color would be cream and white, with some red accents. She said that two on-site planting beds have been prepared as mockups, as seen by the Commission members who visited the site; these demonstrate shady and sunny conditions, and they will be monitored for the next eighteen months, potentially resulting in adjustments to details such as the selection and spacing of plants.
Ms. Harwell said that the existing Swenson Pink granite would be salvaged for use in the steps and paving, supplemented by matching new granite at the platforms; the central pool would be paved in black granite. The paving at the Mall level would be exposed-aggregate concrete, as used by the National Park Service. She added that a cistern would be located beneath the north entrance; the captured stormwater would be used for irrigation.
Mr. Ade provided further details of the Sculpture Garden design. The existing concrete walls, generally toward the perimeter, are the primary organizing element and provide a visual connection to the museum building; they all have the same color and texture, with an aggregate that includes Swenson Pink granite. The proposal is to replace all of these walls, replicating the original material but with some needed design modifications; for example, the perimeter walls would become slightly taller to meet the present-day safety requirement for the barrier height above the adjacent terrain. The proposal would introduce nine dry-stack stone walls as secondary organizing elements that define the garden areas and smaller spaces. As recommended by the Commission in 2019, the detailing of these walls has been carefully studied, including the preparation of three large mockups. The design goals include selecting a stone that fits into the historic context but has its own identity, while providing a harmonious backdrop for the sculptures. He said that Mr. Sugimoto has worked with a group of masons to develop the stacking technique, which involves careful planning of the stone proportions, joints, and overall pattern, with every stone having a compositional role to play. He emphasized that the stones would not be simply a veneer, and the open joints would allow water to drain freely through the wall; the stones would be anchored to a stainless-steel structure at the center of the wall assembly. The battered profile of the walls would echo the profile of the existing walls around the museum plaza and would be consistent with the long design tradition of dry-stack stone walls. He said that the stone would be selected from quarries in Pennsylvania, with careful attention to the blend of color. The stone walls would typically be two feet lower than the concrete perimeter walls and would be offset one foot from them.
In a perspective view, Mr. Ade indicated the central stone wall north of the reflecting pool, fronting the north overlook, that would replace an existing concrete wall from the Bunshaft design. He noted that some people have commented that this wall should remain in concrete as a historical feature, but he emphasized the importance of using stone for this wall in order to unify the east and west sides of the Sculpture Garden and to provide a coherent concept of stone walls within the concrete perimeter. The stone would be used as a consistent backdrop for sculpture, and its surface would improve acoustics for performances by avoiding echoes. He said that the height of the stone walls has been selected to allow visitors to see comfortably across the space.
Mr. Ade said that another organizing element is continuous granite benches, which would be a reinterpretation of those introduced by Collins. The benches would provide generous seating and a border for the raised planting beds; the material would be Swenson Pink granite, as used by Collins.
Mr. Ade said that the design of the new reflecting pool has been studied in response to the Commission’s previous recommendation to make it less generic and more dynamic. It could be drained to various levels to provide different configurations for audience seating around a central platform, or when filled it would provide a contemplative setting for art. This pool would be drained in winter; the nearby pool from Bunshaft’s design would be heated to hold water throughout the year.
Mr. Ade said that patinated bronze and other materials of the museum campus would be used for the details. The bronze handrails would include custom extruded profiles and cast pieces. Lighting would be shielded and subtle; the Sculpture Garden is generally closed to the public at night, but lighting levels could be increased for special evening events. Continuous LED lighting would be located beneath the handrails and the front edge of the benches. Patinated bronze gates would secure each entrance at night, with a height comparable to a guardrail; during public hours, the gates would be folded into the walls. The curved walls forming the entrance to the underground passage would be panels of highly polished stainless steel; vertical bands would be created during the fabrication process to produce distortions at regular intervals, resulting in a rippled appearance. He said that the reflection of the visitors and landscape would create an experience of constant change. A simple guardbooth at the southwest corner would be clad in bronze.
Mr. Ade concluded with a video simulation of a visitor’s experience. A person standing on the Mall could look south across the sunken Sculpture Garden toward the museum building. Continuing to the north overlook, a visitor would see the different parts of the Sculpture Garden, then descend into each of the gallery areas. The visitor could ascend back to the Mall level or could use the underground passage to reach a staircase to the museum plaza; the video concluded with a view back from the plaza.
Secretary Luebke provided a summary of background material and public comments that have been received. He began with a written opinion that the Commission had requested from prominent landscape architect Laurie Olin. He said that Mr. Olin agrees with the Commission’s decision in 2019 to approve the concept and request further study of some design elements. Mr. Olin’s opinion of the current submission is that it incorporates refinements and would be a vast improvement over the existing conditions. He said that Mr. Olin provides historical context for sculpture gardens and sunken gardens, both of which have long existed; some of these have been beautiful, while others have been less successful. Museum landscapes became more prevalent in the 20th century, sometimes serving as sculpture gardens; and in the late 20th century, some artists began creating artworks in the landscape rather than for gallery settings. Mr. Olin’s report characterizes the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden as a combination of these typologies, and the current proposal would create a new combination of typologies, which may be a reason that the proposal has been controversial.
Mr. Luebke summarized Mr. Olin’s characterization of the Bunshaft design as originally built: it was austere, with gravel surfaces and a single tree; the reflecting pool was reduced from the originally intended size; and the space was widely criticized for being “unbearably hot and blindingly bright, dismal in winter, and highly criticized.” Describing Lester Collins as a well-respected landscape architect, Mr. Olin characterizes his renovation as economical in retaining the main architectural elements of the Bunshaft design while introducing lawn areas, brick paving, and a variety of trees, shrubs, and vines; he notes that the Collins design could be criticized as being too considerate of Bunshaft’s garden and not bold enough in changing it. The garden has endured several decades of normal wear, and it has long been viewed by many as dysfunctional, tired, programmatically out of date, and in need of major transformation. Mr. Olin’s report also notes that gardens and landscapes are inherently dynamic, not static, and their long-term survival usually involves some degree of change. The standard guidelines for historic preservation, which emerged in the late 1960s, are effective for buildings and other structures but can be difficult and controversial when applied to landscapes. Mr. Olin’s report notes that the plaza beneath the Hirshhorn’s building was renovated in the early 1990s by landscape architect James Urban, radically transforming Bunshaft’s design; this was apparently implemented with broad support and without controversy.
Mr. Luebke described Mr. Olin’s praise for Mr. Sugimoto as a distinguished and respected artist of international fame, with a record of exemplary site design works, and for Faye Harwell as a highly respected landscape architect. While the proposal involves substantial change in material and spatial character, Mr. Olin describes these changes as bold and sophisticated. The narrow existing basin would be enhanced to appear more generous, in keeping with its context and purpose. Many of the concrete walls, which Mr. Olin describes as mundane and problematic, would be replaced by stone walls that are simple and engaging, having an appealing appearance that has a century of proven success in many locations around the world as a superb setting for art.
Mr. Luebke summarized Mr. Olin’s conclusion that most of the concerns raised in the Commission’s 2019 review have been addressed, and the currently proposed design is far superior to any of the historic iterations of the Sculpture Garden; the proposal would add a worthy layer to the historic designs that will remain embedded within the garden, which will become a sequential work of art that has been created through time, far more interesting than any one of the designers could have done alone.
Mr. Luebke summarized the letters received from several advocacy groups. The first letter is from the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which notes that none of the Commission’s current members were part of the previous review in 2019; the letter therefore describes issues that have been raised during the various review and consultation processes. TCLF emphasizes that Bunshaft designed a unified campus encompassing the museum building, its plaza, and the Sculpture Garden, using the same material of aggregate concrete and a related treatment of walls; as a further unifying gesture, the reflecting pool is related to the rectangular window on the building’s north facade. TCLF writes that, along with other advocates, it has consistently raised concerns about the introduction of stacked stone walls and the new U-shaped reflecting pool that serves to provide raked seating. TCLF observes that stacked stone would be a new material for the Hirshhorn; the Smithsonian describes the character of the proposed walls as “pre-modern,” which would be unrelated to the museum building and plaza. Similarly, the added pool would obfuscate the relationship between the original pool and the building’s architecture. TCLF questions whether these proposed interventions are the only solutions that could meet the stated programmatic needs, such as accommodating performance art, and suggests finding other ways to accomplish the objectives without fundamentally altering the relationship of the Sculpture Garden to the rest of the Hirshhorn campus. TCLF also asks whether the current proposal respects Bunshaft’s artistic intent for a Modernist complex. TCLF acknowledges the necessity of replacing the existing walls due to the deterioration of the original concrete, which has caused decay that has been described as a visual distraction; but TCLF asks if the rough surfaces of the stacked stone will exacerbate this effect. TCLF comments that the precedents cited by the Smithsonian for other gardens using stacked stone walls are not relevant to this project, and the claimed acoustic benefits of the stone walls are unconvincing. TCLF expresses concern that the additional pool would diminish the role of the central gallery, and the effect would be to make the existing pool part of a framing device rather than a focal point. TCLF observes that the Smithsonian has had difficulty maintaining the existing pool, which is now empty and looks forlorn; the concern is whether the Smithsonian will be able to deal with the more complex maintenance demands of the proposed U-shaped pool. TCLF notes that the west gallery is being designed to accommodate performances and large-scale sculptures, raising the question of why the central gallery needs to be drastically altered to create a second space serving a similar purpose; a further question is whether the design for the west gallery has deficiencies that necessitate the proposed treatment of the central gallery. The letter from TCLF concludes by citing a Wall Street Journal article from March 2021 that the central gallery’s performance space would be used for only a few hours per week during a limited part of the year.
Mr. Luebke summarized a letter from the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which continues to oppose many aspects of the proposal. The Committee of 100 believes that little if any of the historic Sculpture Garden would survive if the proposal is implemented. The east side, currently an open area of grass dotted with sculpture, would be compartmentalized by the stone partition walls, resulting in the loss of the historic open design. The central gallery, currently an open grassy square, would be taken over by the multi-use pool and performance space, and the existing pool would be demolished and replaced. The west gallery’s sequence of levels would be demolished to create a large single-level space. The concrete partition walls within the Sculpture Garden, the historic focal point of the overall design, would be demolished and replaced by a shorter stacked stone wall. While acknowledging that the stacked stone walls throughout the Sculpture Garden would be compelling and attractive, the Committee of 100 comments that this material is incompatible and inappropriate for the spare mid-century Modernism and concrete vocabulary of the existing design. The Committee of 100 also expresses concern that the paving, currently square tiles of light brown clay, would be replaced by long rectilinear pavers of white stone, adversely affecting the overall color of the space. The removal of other existing features is also a concern, including ramps and plantings. The letter concludes that every historic element of the Sculpture Garden would likely be demolished or significantly changed; despite the Smithsonian’s assertion that the proposal is in keeping with the garden’s historic character, the result would be to largely destroy this historically significant property.
Mr. Luebke summarized the letter received from Docomomo US, a national advocacy organization for conservation of Modern design. Docomomo finds that the proposed changes do not balance historic preservation goals with the programmatic goals, commenting that the Smithsonian has not provided sound reasoning for the proposed change in material for the long inner wall and for the addition of a second pool with stadium seating. Docomomo says that the acoustics argument for using stacked stone and a battered profile is not compelling, and the mockup demonstrates that the stacked stone would visually dominate rather than recede from the concrete walls, even when sculpture is exhibited. Referring to the described character of the stacked stone walls, Docomomo discourages the introduction of pre-modern elements into the Sculpture Garden. Docomomo recommends that the scale of the stacked stone walls should be minimized, and the additional pool in the central gallery should be designed as a secondary element to allow the historic pool to be the central focus. Docomomo also expresses concern about the detrimental effect of cumulative changes to the Sculpture Garden.
Mr. Luebke summarized a letter from landscape architect Elizabeth Meyer, who was a Commission member from 2012 to 2021 and served as Vice Chair; she participated in the Commission’s concept-level review in 2019 and writes to clarify her comments from that review. At that time, the identified period of significance for the Sculpture Garden included the 1974 Bunshaft design but not the later renovation by Collins; Ms. Meyer says that she had therefore requested further research on the Collins work while broadly supporting the proposal to add a further layer of changes to a landscape that had already been altered. Subsequently, the work of Collins has become better understood and is now recognized as part of the period of significance; her letter says that this new information changes how she would comment on the project, and the Collins renovation should now be given more weight in evaluating the current proposal. Ms. Meyer’s letter emphasizes that design and preservation should not be treated as separate endeavors; landscapes should instead be understood through the “double gaze” of being living systems as well as cultural artifacts that evolve over time. Every landscape design, particularly in the public realm, involves altering an earlier form. Ms. Meyer notes that the challenges in this project, particularly the tension between preservation and new design, are not unique. She urges the Commission members—all new since the prior review—to take great care in evaluating this project. Among the questions for the current review may be how the design has changed in response to the recent recognition of the historic significance of the Collins renovation, what criteria should be used for evaluating the redesign of a landscape with many layers, and whether the submission might be more appropriately reviewed as a revised concept rather than a final design.
Mr. Luebke summarized a letter from author Nancy Slade, who wrote a book on Lester Collins. He noted that her testimony in 2019 had criticized the lack of analysis of Collins’ contributions to the extant garden design; although this analysis has subsequently occurred, her letter says that no substantive changes have been made to the design in response to the determination of significance for the Collins renovation. The letter comments that the proposal fundamentally compromises Bunshaft’s design and unnecessarily alters the sympathetic relationship of landscape and architecture that was historically established by Bunshaft and Collins. The letter also cites the adverse effects of inserting the stacked stone walls and the additional reflecting pool.
Mr. Luebke summarized a letter from Elsa Santoyo, a historic preservation specialist in Washington, D.C. Her letter says that the proposed stone walls are incompatible with the Brutalist concrete and would sever the existing symbiotic relationship between the landscape and architecture, joined by their shared materiality. Her letter says that stone walls in the sunken space might be appropriate if the building’s foundation were stone, but this is not the case; the insertion of stone walls in the Sculpture Garden would therefore appear capricious.
Mr. Luebke summarized the final letter, from local urban planner Carol Truppi. Her letter says that she is perplexed by the proposal, and particularly by the insertion of stone walls, which would be incongruent in the context of a Modernist design. She questions how the proposed walls would improve visibility, access, or the accommodation of performances.
Chair Tsien invited questions from the Commission members before general discussion of the project. Mr. McCrery expressed appreciation for the visit to the site the previous day, hosted by the Smithsonian staff. He said that there was discussion at the site of whether the submitted drawings constitute the complete final design or are not yet final. Mr. Ade confirmed that everything in today’s presentation is the proposed final design for the project.
Mr. P. Cook recalled from the site visit that the additional reflecting pool was described as contributing to the site’s stormwater management system; he asked for clarification of this issue. Mr. Ade responded that the proposed design includes a comprehensive stormwater management system that is independent of the reflecting pools, relying instead on a new cistern and piping system that would be constructed. Currently, the underground pipes are broken and the existing reflecting pool is therefore in effect being used as a stormwater reservoir, but this is not a desirable situation. Alyson Steele of Quinn Evans Architects, part of the design team, added that this project provides the opportunity to correct some longstanding problems. After a major rain, the Sculpture Garden routinely floods with backup from the municipal stormwater system. The proposal includes a new slab structure with water retention below; the stormwater captured in the cisterns would be used for the reflecting pools as well as for soil irrigation. She said that the comprehensive design approach would eliminate the problem of flooding and would make the garden more resilient for the future.
Mr. Moore said that the opportunity to correct longstanding problems in this evolving landscape suggests further questions about accessibility. He acknowledged that the proposal would significantly improve the accessibility, but he suggested considering a longer-term vision for the context. He said that crossing Jefferson Drive has many constraints and is not a good experience for those trying to reach the proposed ramps from the existing museum plaza. The reopened underground passage would provide an alternative connection, but its southern terminus would be a staircase connecting to the museum plaza; he asked if a future connection could be provided directly between the passage and the museum’s lower level. Ms. Steele acknowledged that the accessibility of the Sculpture Garden is tied into a larger system; she said that the project team has been working with the Smithsonian to coordinate this project with improvements being planned by the National Park Service for the Mall and other nearby areas. She agreed that the southwest corner of the Sculpture Garden site would become a key access point, and the conditions south of this corner are not ideal; she said that the Hirshhorn will soon be undertaking a revitalization project for this area, and the current proposal is intended to connect with those future improvements. She also agreed that an improved connection at the south end of the underground passage would be a worthwhile future goal.
Mr. Moore said that a related issue is the sightlines for people in wheelchairs; he acknowledged that this can be difficult to evaluate in the elevated perspective views, but he questioned whether the sightlines would be appropriate for seeing above the walls at the overlooks. He suggested further study of the sightlines from these areas and from vantage points within the sunken areas of the Sculpture Garden. He observed that the performance space at the new reflecting pool would not be elevated, and he questioned whether sightlines to this area would be adequate for people in wheelchairs. He emphasized the importance of designing the Sculpture Garden as a public landscape that is truly inclusive, beyond its role in displaying culture and art; he recommended much more study and care in achieving this goal.
Ms. Trowbridge responded that the Smithsonian’s accessibility officer has been involved throughout the design process. She acknowledged that the project inherently involves preserving a sunken garden rather than realigning it to the grade of the Mall; she said that within this framework, the project meets the Smithsonian’s accessibility standards and would provide improvements. Mr. Ade agreed that further accessibility improvements would be desirable, but the extent of the site is constrained, and the greatest depth from street level is nearly thirteen feet. He said that other design solutions were considered, involving more ramps to provide an easier and potentially more direct circulation pattern, but this approach reduced the amount of space available for displaying sculptures; the proposed design is intended to balance these issues.
Mr. McCrery said that he likes the design of the security gates, particularly their integration with the perimeter wall at the Sculpture Garden’s opening toward the center of the Mall. However, he questioned whether the site could be adequately secured by these low gates; he observed that the nearby sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art is entirely enclosed by fencing that is approximately ten to twelve feet tall. Ms. Steele confirmed that the walls and gates would secure the perimeter to a height of 42 inches, but she said that these are only part of the security system; other features include the guard booth, with a guard present at all times, and extensive camera coverage. She said that the design team has consulted with other organizations such as the Walker Art Center, which has successfully used this type of security system to protect its visitors and artworks. Mr. McCrery welcomed this solution for securing the Sculpture Garden.
Mr. McCrery asked about the width of the walkway between the two pools; Mr. Ade said it would be five feet wide, adding that it is not considered a major circulation route. Mr. McCrery said that this path could be attractive for children playing or for people posing for photographs, resulting in difficulty for others to pass by, particularly those in wheelchairs. Mr. Ade said that different widths were studied; a wider path tended to divide the pools too much, while a narrower path was also rejected. Mr. McCrery asked if the permitting process would require some sort of code-compliant barrier to be added along the pool edges to prevent people from stepping into the water accidentally, such as when taking photographs; Mr. Ade said that this was discussed with the Smithsonian staff, which has extensive experience with such issues. Ms. Trowbridge added that the Smithsonian has its own fire and building code official, and the width of this path has been determined to be sufficient, although she acknowledged that a wider path could be safer. Ms. Steele said that some of the adjustments made during coordination with safety officials may not be incorporated into the presented renderings, such as the color contrast between the black granite of the pool basin and the light granite around it. She noted that warning strips of stainless steel in relief would be placed around the perimeter of the pool, comparable to the platform edge treatment at Metro stations, although this detail is too small to appear in the renderings; Mr. Ade said that these custom-designed strips would be recessed linear elements within the stone. Ms. Steele added that the depth of the pool was reduced for safety.
Dr. Edwards asked for clarification of the acoustic benefit of the proposed stone walls, which was cited in the presentation and questioned in the public comments. She noted that no ambient noise was perceptible during the Commission’s site visit. Ms. Steele responded that despite yesterday’s experience, the street level is typically quite noisy, although the deeply sunken central space of the Sculpture Garden is the area most shielded from this noise. She said that for the intended presentation of performance art, intelligibility is of critical importance for establishing the connection between performer and audience. The existing wall surfaces are vertical and smooth, reflecting sound waves directly back into the space, which compromises intelligibility. The proposed stone walls would have a rough surface that helps to diffuse the sound, and the walls would be battered at an angle similar to the 1:10 angle of the existing walls framing the museum plaza; this angle would reflect sound above the heads of people within the central gallery. The result is that the proposed walls would not create echoes, vastly improving the acoustics. She added that this conclusion is based on a study conducted in 2019 in the early design stages of this project. Ms. Tsien added that she is working with acoustical issues in her own architectural practice, and the specialists typically provide reliable conclusions based on careful research.
Mr. Stroik asked for further information about the proposed underground passage; he observed that the drawings and video presentation address the passage itself but do not convey the experience of using the staircase at its south end, and he questioned why the large, curved walls at the passage’s north end would have a mirror finish. He also asked why a second reflecting pool is being added, adjacent to the historic pool; he said that the process to drain the new pool to serve as a performance space seems cumbersome, while the existing central lawn panel appears to serve well as both a performance space and a setting for sculpture display. Mr. Ade responded that the original underground passage, part of Bunshaft’s design, was closed after only a few years because it was an unpleasant space that seemed dark and unsafe. The current proposal intends to avoid repeating these problems by bringing light in to animate the passage, making it interesting and beautiful; the goal is to encourage people to use the passage to traverse between the Sculpture Garden and the museum plaza. He said that the reflections from the polished walls would not be overpowering, and the lighting design is intended to create a subtle rather than overpowering experience. Ms. Chiu added that the polished steel would have a reflective quality but would not appear as a mirror. She emphasized that Mr. Sugimoto, as an artist and architect, has developed a holistic design for the central gallery intended to create a welcoming place of contemplation using light, water, shade, and other elements; the reflective steel surface of the curved walls would be one element of this landscape. She added that these walls forming the passage entrance would be visible from the Mall, serving to draw potential visitors into the Sculpture Garden. Ms. Harwell noted that the additional pool would serve to cool the space through evaporation, addressing the problem of intense summer heat. The pool would therefore likely remain filled with water during the summer, and its use as a performance space could be scheduled for the spring and fall.
Mr. P. Cook noted the past concern with safety in the underground passage, and he asked if gates would be necessary to secure the upper or lower end of the passage’s staircase outside of public hours; he added that gates within the museum plaza would be an unfortunate addition. Ms. Steele responded that the design includes gates at the bottom of the stairs and also at the north end of the passage to secure this space at night. Mr. Ade said that a gate at the bottom of the staircase was part of the Bunshaft design; a slot in the wall, a remnant of this design, would be reused for one of the new gates, which would retract and disappear from view during the public hours. He added that renovation of the museum building and plaza is being planned, and the entire plaza may become closed off and secured outside of public hours. Ms. Trowbridge confirmed that the plaza renovation will be submitted to the Commission as a separate project; she also noted that additional security measures, such as temporary fencing, are used to secure these areas during heavily attended special events including presidential inaugurations.
Mr. R.M. Cook described the curving reflective walls as “visionary,” and he supported the concern that they should not be cluttered with gates. He noted that the questions from the Commission members have raised the issue of whether the design is fully conveyed by the presented drawings; as an example, he asked whether the reflective surfaces would continue for the full length of the underground passage, and how gates would relate to these walls. Mr. Ade referred to the section drawing through the passage; he indicated the vertical line toward the south end at the base of the stairs, corresponding to the slot from the Bunshaft design that would accommodate the gate, and the line to the north that marks the start of the mirrored wall finish. Mr. R.M. Cook compared the mirrored walls to Chicago’s popular Cloud Gate sculpture, known as the “Bean,” commenting that the passage could become an amazing attraction for the Hirshhorn. Mr. Stroik instead suggested a comparison to the tunnel at the National Gallery of Art connecting the West Building and East Building, which he said is a less attractive example.
Ms. Harwell asked for the opportunity to respond to the concern raised in the letter from Elizabeth Meyer about neglecting historic preservation issues. Ms. Harwell said that the project team has considered the report by Robinson & Associates on the Hirshhorn’s architectural and landscape history, and many extant features of the Bunshaft and Collins designs would be retained in this project. These include some of the plantings, such as the Japanese flowering cherry trees on the north edge at the entrance from the Mall, as introduced by Collins, and the elm trees on the east and west from the Bunshaft design. The proposed sugar maples and pines are consistent with the planting program initiated by Collins. The proposed ramp location is approximately where Collins had planned a ramp, and the original pool’s location and configuration would remain. She emphasized that the historic features have been a very important consideration for designing the architecture and landscape.
Chair Tsien opened the discussion to comments from the Commission members. Mr. McCrery presented a list of concerns that he has prepared for the discussion. First is the lack of visual and physical openness between the Sculpture Garden and the Mall; the current problem of insularity and separation from the Mall would remain. He criticized the proposal for stacked stone walls as antithetical to the powerful architectural vision and language of the museum building, its plaza, and the Sculpture Garden. He also criticized the assertion that these stone walls would be a good backdrop for the display of modern sculptures, commenting that the opposite argument would be more persuasive. He said that the intentional contrast would force the sculptures to compete with the walls, and the walls are apparently also intended to compete with the Hirshhorn’s prevailing architectural character; the result would be a pervading visual dissonance that is not desirable in this setting for the display of art. He criticized the design approach of dividing and subdividing the space into a controlled sequence that he described as “Baroque,” a character that he said is antithetical to the nature of Modernist space. He agreed with Mr. Olin’s criticism of the existing pool as lacking any special character, and he questioned why Mr. Sugimoto is proposing to emulate it with a second water feature, which appears uninspiring; he said the resulting design does not seem successful; he added that the second pool, when drained, would become an additional feature within a space that is supposed to be a Modernist garden. He concluded by supporting Mr. Moore’s concerns about the accessibility into and within the Sculpture Garden; he observed that the entry route from Jefferson Drive appears to be extremely long.
Mr. R.M. Cook commented that the stacked stone walls would be very beautiful, but he agreed with the concern that the priority should be on maintaining the original Brutalist design character of the Hirshhorn complex. He said that the extent of the current garden’s change from the Bunshaft design was apparent during the site visit, and the proposal would bring the design too far beyond the original intent. He said that the potential historic status for the Hirshhorn should be a consideration. However, he said that other features of the proposal would be “magical”—such as the improved design for the failed underground passage; he summarized his mixed reaction on whether to support the proposal.
Ms. Tsien provided her reactions to the proposal, focused on the topics of conservation, use, and craft. Citing the recent demolition of a building that her firm had designed and valued, she emphasized her great respect for the principle of conservation. She also noted that some of her buildings have been added to or altered in a sensitive manner, which she said is the best way for a design to continue to work for those who inhabit it. She characterized today’s proposal as a very positive project that provides a superlatively sensitive, thoughtful, and thorough treatment. She said that the site visit demonstrated the unpleasantness of occupying the garden during the summer heat, and she said that some of the proposed features would make the garden a more useful place. She supported the increased area of water surface in the summer, along with the separation of the pools from the stormwater retention system, which is currently causing the existing pool to be kept dry; she said that the cooler environment around the pools would be very inviting. She commented that the walls surrounding the Sculpture Garden are uncomfortably high for a person who is not tall, and she supported the mockup of a lower height for the stone wall, as well as the thoughtfulness in the rendering of depicting a short person looking over the wall. Nonetheless, she acknowledged the concern that the sightlines may not be successful for a person in a wheelchair, which needs to be considered in combination with the minimum height of 42 inches for a safety wall. Regarding the project’s craft, she said that she has seen the craftsmanship of the Japanese stone masons who have worked with Mr. Sugimoto, and she is confident of their skill and the beauty of the proposed stone walls; she said these walls would provide an exquisite layering within the Sculpture Garden. She summarized that the proposed design respects the intentions of the past architecture and landscape architecture because it is about making the space live and work for contemporary users. She said that designers should want their work to be cared about in the future by having their work continue to be usable, and this project serves that purpose. She clarified that evolution of a built work is inevitable, and the goal should be to have it done in a sensitive way that gives careful consideration to the original design, while not necessarily replicating its features but instead expressing the spirit. She said that this is how buildings and gardens can live into future generations.
Mr. Stroik observed that things get built without the opportunity to prepare prototypes, and changes can be expected during construction or over the life of a building as the users decide what they want to modify; an architect sometimes is satisfied with these changes to his project, and sometimes is not. The design for the Sculpture Garden has had many problems over the decades, and the past modifications seem to have improved it; he said that the Sculpture Garden is better now than in its earlier form that he recalls from growing up in the Washington area. He said that concrete is not an especially harmonious material for the Mall or for the visitors; he described it as a problematic material and noted that the existing concrete needs to be replaced anyway. He said that the Mall should generally be a place of permanent materials such as stone and bronze. He expressed regret that the opportunity was not taken to replace the Hirshhorn building’s failing concrete facade with granite or Tennessee marble during the recent renovation project, and he supported the proposed use of stone as an improvement for the Sculpture Garden. He agreed with the comments that the stacked stone would be beautiful; he said that the longstanding art form of stone wall construction could be continued or revived with this project, and the walls would humanize and harmonize the garden gallery spaces. He also agreed that the stone walls would provide acoustical benefits, including the battered profile that relates to existing walls at the Hirshhorn’s plaza. He acknowledged the benefits of additional water in the central gallery, commenting that he would be satisfied with the new pool serving primarily as a water feature rather than a performance space.
Mr. P. Cook expressed appreciation for the thorough and thoughtful presentation as well as for the helpful responses to the questions from the Commission members. He acknowledged that prior to this review, the project has gone through extensive thought, comments, and direction. He said that his challenge as a newly appointed Commission member is whether any of the concerns being raised now are compelling enough to reverse the progression of the project; his conclusion instead is that the project should move forward, and the proposal includes very beautiful work. He particularly cited the underground passage, which he anticipated would become a popular attraction, as well as the strengthened physical and visual connections to the Mall; he emphasized the importance of opening the views so that people on the Mall could enjoy the Sculpture Garden by looking in from the periphery without having to physically occupy it. He also supported the design of flexible spaces that can accommodate changing needs. He agreed with other Commission members that the circulation pattern is a concern; he cited the statistic that seventy percent of the museum’s visitors approach it from the Mall, but the convenience of the circulation pattern from the Mall—particularly a barrier-free route—has not been addressed sufficiently. He said that he is unconvinced about the addition of a second pool and the U-shaped configuration that is proposed, and he agreed with the concern that the five-foot-wide path between the pools is too narrow, particularly at a location where people will likely pose for photographs and where the path’s edge conditions are hazardous. He agreed with the skepticism about the intended acoustic benefits but said that he would accept the project team’s conclusion. He summarized that in the decades since the Sculpture Garden first opened, much has changed in American society; we should embrace that change and not be afraid to add another layer to the design, and he said that he is excited about the vision that is proposed.
Mr. Moore said that this project provides an opportunity to demonstrate what a public landscape can be and what it can mean; a balance needs to be struck between respect for the past designs and the current opportunity. For the evaluation of the stone walls, he deferred to the Commission members who attended the site visit and saw the mockup. He said that some of the arguments provided by Laurie Olin in support of the proposal are compelling, such as the historic context of craftsmanship and of Collins’s adaptation of the original design to provide improved accessibility. He said that the project has moved in a good direction, but he urged the design team to consider refinements that would further improve the proposal. A particular issue is the modern concern for accessibility, including the broader issue of access to the site; although the proposal may be an improvement over existing conditions, this public landscape should meet a higher standard of being the best that is possible. He agreed with other Commission members that the mirrored walls at the underground passage would be enjoyable, but a future improved connection to the museum could potentially disrupt the passage’s design, and he recommended that the longer-term solution be studied more carefully as part of the current design process. He summarized that the project has gone in a good direction but with further refinements needed.
Dr. Edwards supported the comments of the other Commission members, particularly Mr. P. Cook’s appreciation for the improved physical and visual connections to the Mall. She said that in her many years in Washington she has visited the Sculpture Garden only a few times, largely due to the difficulty of getting into it, particularly from Jefferson Drive. She agreed with Mr. Moore that the proposal would move the Sculpture Garden toward the future; increased accessibility is important, and large numbers of people will likely be drawn to visit, comparable to the popularity of Chicago’s Millennium Park with its reflective “Bean” sculpture.
Chair Tsien suggested formulating an action on the proposed final design. Secretary Luebke observed that the Commission members seem generally supportive of the project while raising concerns about some details and accessibility. The landscape design seems to have support, although the consensus on the reflecting pool is not clear. He said that there seems to be a general acceptance of the stone walls as demonstrated in the mockup and for their proposed configuration. He noted the concern with the unresolved future connection of the underground passage to the museum’s interior. He suggested that the Commission could approve the final design with conditions, or else decide that the project is not yet ready for an action. Chair Tsien observed an apparent consensus that barrier-free access from the Mall should be studied further, while opinions seem divided on the reflecting pool, perhaps requiring a vote to resolve.
Mr. McCrery observed that from within, the Sculpture Garden does not have a visual relationship to the Mall, nor to the National Archives building to the north; the view to the Mall and Archives is better from the museum’s lobby and especially from its third-floor balcony. He suggested improving the relationship by keeping at least one of the existing ramps along the Mall, along with lowering or opening the adjacent parallel wall to improve the visual and physical connection to the Mall. Ms. Tsien noted that this would alter a wall that is part of the original Bunshaft design; Mr. McCrery clarified that he admires the project team’s willingness to do new things with the Sculpture Garden, and he does not consider the Bunshaft and Collins designs to be particularly remarkable. He emphasized that regardless of the improvements over time, the special thing about the Sculpture Garden is the sculptures within it. He summarized that his comments have not been intended to criticize the design effort but instead to acknowledge the courage of the designers and challenge them to be bolder in developing the new garden. Ms. Chiu added that the video presentation included a 360-degree view from the Mall to illustrate its direct relationship with the Sculpture Garden.
Mr. McCrery said that his comments are consistent with the support from Mr. Olin: the Sculpture Garden’s original design was problematic; the renovation by Collins was a major improvement; and the current project provides another opportunity to make it better. The concern is that the current proposal is too timid, perhaps overly constrained by historic preservation issues. He said that we should preserve what is good and timeless, but otherwise we should be willing to set aside past work and be willing to go boldly forward. Citing his own experience with design projects having multiple stakeholders, he expressed sympathy for the predicament of the project team, but he emphasized that historic preservation should not be the central issue for this design opportunity.
Mr. R.M. Cook said that the historic preservation issue has been troubling in evaluating this project, and he suggested further discussion of this topic. Mr. McCrery reiterated that historic preservation is valuable in the right circumstances, but sometimes a new project is better designed than the old structures that would be replaced; he cited his involvement with a project in London involving multiple buildings that were several centuries old but not all of special merit. He acknowledged that U.S. standards are different than those in other countries, but he said that the opportunity should be taken for improving on a past design. He noted that this viewpoint is controversial, but he reiterated that preference should be given to the better design rather than the older one. Mr. R.M. Cook questioned whether this logic would require supporting the replacement of the piers on the porch at George Washington’s Mount Vernon with round columns; Mr. McCrery said this would not deserve support because it would not be an improvement.
The Commission members requested watching again the video animation illustrating a view from the Mall. Mr. McCrery observed that the proposal would widen the portal between the Sculpture Garden and the center of the Mall from the narrow current dimension of approximately thirty feet to the original dimension of sixty feet, but the view through this opening would be immediately interrupted by a wall, thereby undermining the intent of the design gesture. He said that the result of blocking the downward view into the Sculpture Garden is to emphasize the horizontal view toward the architecture of the museum building. Ms. Chiu noted that as people on the Mall move closer, they would see sculptures and then into the Sculpture Garden itself; Mr. McCrery agreed but emphasized that a visitor’s attention would not be drawn to the garden’s core area.
Mr. Ade responded that the issue of thresholds has been very important to the design team, including the experience of exiting the Mall and entering the Sculpture Garden. The goals include welcoming visitors into the garden but also providing a sense of separation so that the Sculpture Garden would keep its character as a sanctuary. He said that the design team tested many treatments of this threshold; the proposal is intended to have a transitional space, comparable to a vestibule, as visitors leave the Mall behind and enter into the Sculpture Garden. He emphasized that the Mall can be full of activities, including festivals with tents and noise, and these can be detrimental to experiencing the sculptures. He said that the overlook should provide a sufficient sense of welcome, while the design carefully separates the garden from the very busy character of the Mall.
Ms. Tsien agreed that the sense of sanctuary is very important. She also noted the regulatory requirement for a safety barrier that is at least 42 inches high; this could be provided by another technique such as a glass railing instead of the concrete wall, but then people in the Sculpture Garden would see people walking on the Mall. Other solutions may be possible, but they would also be distracting; Mr. McCrery suggested broad shallow steps, but Ms. Tsien observed that extensive railings would be needed. She concluded that pushing these design issues would create a difficult challenge for the project team, while acknowledging that this may be an appropriate role for the Commission.
Mr. Luebke summarized the issues that have been raised; he observed that these would be difficult to frame as conditions for a final design approval, and he suggested that the Commission could give general support for the project’s direction while asking for further study of the outstanding questions. He noted that further review is needed by the National Capital Planning Commission, and a general expression of support may be sufficiently helpful in moving the project forward. He clarified that conditions attached to a final approval would generally involve narrow topics and clear guidance for resolution, such as further documentation of signage, but some of the concerns for this project may be more fundamental to the proposal.
Mr. McCrery suggested that the Commission not approve the design, but instead provide guidance for the design team to return with a more complete and developed plan that responds to the issues that have been identified, such as openness to the Mall. The next submission could include options rather than a single design proposal; the current design could remain as one of the presented options. For example, an option could include a staircase descending from the Mall level, or a ramp at the Mall entrance that would provide an alternative barrier-free access route, or possibly a mechanical lift instead of a ramp. He observed that an alternative barrier-free route on the east side of the Sculpture Garden would only have to descend to the intermediate level of the galleries in this area, relying on the proposal’s other ramps to provide circulation to the lower central gallery and then to the west gallery. Similarly, he suggested providing design alternatives for the configuration or omission of the proposed additional pool, which has been questioned extensively by the Commission members. He acknowledged that his dissatisfaction with the proposal for stacked stone walls is apparently not shared by the other Commission members; he suggested consideration of using American craftsmen. He joined in supporting the design for the underground passage, commenting that its curved reflective walls relate to the geometry of Bunshaft’s museum building that rises above it; he said that this feature would merit being considered a work of art instead of just an architectural solution. He summarized that the Commission could provide its comments without taking an action, requesting that the project team return after further design work.
Ms. Steele asked to provide further context for the issue of accessibility; she acknowledged that this part of the proposal was addressed only briefly in the presentation because the improved accessibility was widely praised in the Commission’s previous review. The access that is currently only provided along the Mall frontage would be reconfigured to provide access from both the Mall on the north and Jefferson Drive on the south; she said that this improves the relationship of the barrier-free route to the museum building and plaza, and also provides an alternative to using the Mall’s gravel paths, which are an obstacle for some visitors. The proposed barrier-free route would have a more generous width than the existing ramps, allowing for a better entry experience, and the proposed overlook along the Mall would be a beneficial feature. She said that the Jefferson Drive sidewalk, rather than the Mall’s gravel paths, provides the barrier-free approach to the garden; from this sidewalk, the length of the proposed accessible route to the first level of the Sculpture Garden would be greatly reduced from the existing route’s length. While the route to the central gallery would be substantially longer, it would still be less than the existing condition, and the route is designed to be more enjoyable with a greater width and benches for companion seating. She emphasized the design team’s careful attention to this issue and close coordination with the Smithsonian’s accessibility staff. Mr. Moore acknowledged these efforts and the substantial improvement that is proposed, as recognized by the Commission members; however, the guidance is to provide further studies to address the concerns that are being raised.
Chair Tsien suggested narrowing down the range of concerns; she expressed concern that the Commission’s guidance may seem so broad that it is impossible to address. She cited universal accessibility as an issue for further study. She observed that the Commission’s response to the proposed pool is not yet clear; some of the comments have been broad and unanswerable, while many comments have focused on the path between the pools. Mr. P. Cook said that alternative configurations for the new pool may be possible, but he is satisfied to accept the configuration proposed by the design team; Mr. Moore agreed in supporting the pool as proposed. Mr. Ade noted that the proposed configuration for the pool is perhaps the eighth iteration that was developed by the design team, resulting from extensive study and from coordination with other review agencies.
Ms. Tsien said that she disagrees with Mr. McCrery’s suggestion to make the Sculpture Garden more open to the Mall, and she suggested that this topic should not be part of the Commission’s response. She commented that a wide area of steps would complicate the broader design character and its preservation; Mr. McCrery noted that a narrower flight of stairs at this location is existing but would be removed in the proposal. Ms. Tsien clarified that her concern is with any recommendation to remove the north wall between the Sculpture Garden and the Mall, which would raise numerous difficult design issues. Mr. McCrery said that a design alternative with a staircase descending from the Mall would be worthwhile for the Commission to see and would not be very difficult to prepare. The proposal would already eliminate the existing ramps, and his suggestion is to rebuild the staircase opening at its original width, which appears to be feasible in conjunction with the proposed design.
Ms. Trowbridge responded that an additional consideration, not described extensively in the presentation, is that the space beneath the north overlook would be used for various functional and operational needs, including a cistern along with storage for gardening equipment and forklifts for moving sculptures. She said that redesign of this area to include a staircase would require finding other locations for these uses. Ms. Harwell added that a sixty-foot-wide stairway, consistent with the width of the original opening in Bunshaft’s design, would consume an enormous amount of space in descending thirteen feet to the garden; this would reduce the area available for sculpture. She also observed that the proposed configuration for barrier-free access on the west side of the Sculpture Garden would be convenient for people approaching from the direction of the Washington Monument and many of the museums on the north side of the Mall; other museums are south of Jefferson Drive, and visitors approaching from these locations would benefit from the access provided at the Jefferson Drive sidewalk. She said that the proposed location for universal access is therefore very useful, although not centered on the north–south axis of the Hirshhorn complex. She emphasized that the proposed ramps would be generously sized and conveniently positioned, compared to the existing lengthy route from the museum that requires going around to the narrower ramps on the north side of the Sculpture Garden.
To clarify the discussion, Secretary Luebke displayed the proposed plan and highlighted the barrier-free routes; he noted that ramps from the site’s northwest and southwest corners would meet and continue downward to the west gallery. The underground passage would provide an additional means of access to the Sculpture Garden but would require using a staircase at the south end, within the museum plaza, until potential future improvements are made to this area. Mr. Ade acknowledged that the reliance on this staircase is not ideal; he said that an elevator at the plaza was included in earlier design studies but has not been brought forward, and the expectation is for this connection to be addressed further in the future project for renovating the museum and plaza. He noted that the lower level of the museum’s interior is at approximately the same level as the Sculpture Garden, and the future solution may be to provide a connection between this interior level and the underground passage rather than insert an elevator within the plaza. In this scenario, the museum’s existing elevator or an additional interior elevator would provide vertical circulation to the plaza level of the museum. Ms. Chiu added that the barrier-free route from the museum’s plaza reaches the Jefferson Drive sidewalk near the plaza’s northwest corner; the Sculpture Garden’s accessible route is configured to align directly across Jefferson Drive with this route from the plaza. Ms. Harwell clarified that the barrier-free route from the plaza to Jefferson Drive goes through the adjacent Ripley Garden, which highlights the broader urban design consideration that connections are being provided among the many areas of visitor interest on the Mall, including the north and south sides; for example the Ripley Garden, popular in itself, provides a connection to the Smithsonian’s quadrangle area. She noted that visitors reaching the entry points at the north and south for the Sculpture Garden’s ramps would have a view into the garden space.
Mr. McCrery suggested that the Sculpture Garden’s east overlook could accommodate an elevator from the Mall level to the sunken garden space, abutting the proposed wall, to shorten the travel route. He observed that access to this intermediate garden level would provide connections to the remaining areas of the Sculpture Garden, as already included in the design. In conjunction with the proposed access ramps on the west, this solution would provide a choice of accessible routes and would distribute visitors to enter at both the east and west sides of the Sculpture Garden. He also observed that an elevator at this location would not interfere with any location for sculpture display as currently depicted in the presented drawings.
Ms. Chiu responded that the impulse to question the presented solutions and propose different design ideas is understandable, and she often has a similar reaction as a curator when she visits other museums. She said that the project team is listening carefully to the discussion to note potential refinements. Nonetheless, she emphasized that the project team has spent several years exploring various options, including those being discussed, and numerous alternatives have been rejected for various reasons; an example is the addition of an elevator between the underground passage and the museum plaza. She observed that an elevator on the east side of the Sculpture Garden would be inconvenient for the predominant approach route from the western side of the Mall or from the museum itself, which has a barrier-free connection at the west side of the plaza; the proposed barrier-free route was developed to provide the shortest possible route, particularly from the museum and also from the Mall. She reiterated that extensive utility areas would be located beneath the north overlook, occupying approximately 3,000 square feet of storage space; in addition to garden maintenance equipment, this space would accommodate art conservation materials. Ms. Harwell added that the design for the east and west overlook areas includes accommodating the existing elm trees, which are very old; the National Park Service has requested that these trees be preserved, and they are part of the Sculpture Garden’s historic setting. A new elevator whose location requires removing any of these trees would therefore be problematic. She noted that the proposal calls for demolition and reconstruction of the concrete walls adjacent to these trees, which will require very careful construction methods; this has been an important consideration for the project.
Noting the lengthy discussion of many questions, Mr. Moore suggested a consensus that the project is not yet ready for approval; he suggested that the Commission members coordinate further with the staff about the concerns that have been raised, and the project could be presented for further review in the coming months. He observed that some of the studies and background information were not provided to the Commission members in advance; he suggested providing this information, as well as further exploration of the options that have been suggested, as part of the advance materials for the next review in order to allow for a more efficient discussion.
Chair Tsien agreed that a more focused discussion would be helpful, and she said that the Commission’s guidance at this stage should be specific rather than open-ended. She reiterated that accessibility is emerging as a topic of concern in the proposal, and it encompasses social as well as design considerations. She suggested that the project team work with the staff, or perhaps arrange an informal session with the Commission members, to focus on this issue and develop specific steps to move forward.
Secretary Luebke summarized four issues that the Commission should take a position on, perhaps addressing them through a sequence of votes: the insertion of the stone walls; the treatment of the north overlook in comparison to greater openness toward the Mall; the broader question of accessibility, including the sufficiency of the proposed improvements or the possible addition of an elevator; and the design of the additional pool, which includes questions about the width of the adjacent walkway and the potential need for safety railings. Chair Tsien said that the substantial depth of the sunken garden suggests the usefulness of providing an elevator in conjunction with the proposed ramps; she suggested exploring this, or else providing the Commission with the studies that have already been done. Mr. McCrery encouraged treating the elevator as a sculptural element, perhaps specially commissioned from a very talented architect, rather than proposing a more utilitarian elevator as seen in Washington’s Metro system. Mr. Moore added that a future accessible route to the south end of the underground passage should be considered as part of the current proposal, such as by designing the mirrored wall to accommodate the future connection.
Chair Tsien suggested a sequence of motions to address the topics summarized by Mr. Luebke. She offered a motion for the Commission to accept the proposal for the dry-stack stone walls; upon a second by Mr. P. Cook, the Commission adopted this motion. Mr. McCrery then offered a motion, seconded by Mr. Stroik, to request preparation of an option for the north overlook design that includes a wide staircase descending from the Mall into the Sculpture Garden, approximating the sixty-foot width of the Bunshaft design. This motion did not pass; Mr. McCrery expressed disappointment at the Commission’s apparent lack of curiosity regarding the exploration of this option. Mr. Luebke said that the proposed design for the north overlook could be accepted as part of an approval of the entire design if the Commission ends up taking such an action. He said that the Commission members seem to agree on a request for further study of options for improving accessibility, including an elevator; the Commission members indicated their consensus to support this position. For the pool, he noted the consensus to consider widening the adjacent walkway, but the Commission’s support for the pool’s general configuration has not been resolved. Upon a motion by Mr. Moore with second by Mr. McCrery, the Commission approved the pool configuration as proposed.
Mr. Stroik offered a summary motion that the Commission is approving the proposal, subject to further study of providing an elevator for improved accessibility, which appears to be the only major outstanding issue. Mr. McCrery suggested delegating this issue to the staff, observing that it is a relatively small consideration after the Commission’s extensive discussion of the project. Chair Tsien supported this action, emphasizing the importance of moving the project forward. She also supported the earlier suggestion from Mr. McCrery that the elevator be treated as an important architectural element; while acknowledging the potential technical problems of providing an elevator, she said that it would be beneficial for the project. Mr. Moore restated the motion, including the request for further study of an elevator and an accessible connection to the underground passage, with further coordination of this issue delegated to the staff; Mr. Stroik clarified that this motion includes approval of the entire proposal, subject to the issues that have been identified for further study. Upon a second by Ms. Tsien, the Commission adopted this action; Mr. McCrery and Mr. R.M. Cook voted against the approval, while clarifying that they support requiring an elevator. Ms. Trowbridge and Ms. Chiu expressed appreciation to the Commission and staff for their assistance.
C. National Park Service / D.C. Department of Transportation
CFA 15/JUL/21-2, Pennsylvania Avenue, Potomac Avenue, and 14th Street, SE. Intersection improvement project—reconfiguration of traffic intersection and new park in the circle. Concept. (Previous: CFA 16/JUL/20-8) Secretary Luebke introduced the alternative designs for a new park space to be created by the reconfiguration of the intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues with 14th Street, SE. This submission from the National Park Service (NPS) has been developed in association with the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration. He summarized the previous review of this project in July 2020, when the Commission did not take an action on the initial proposal that had emerged from the process of public review. The Commission had supported the elliptical shape of the central space but questioned the number and configuration of some of the proposed pedestrian crosswalks, as well as the proposal to design some of the walks through the ellipse as linear extensions of the crosswalks. The Commission had emphasized the need to avoid excessive visual clutter, as well as the importance of designing the park primarily as a landscape in order to give visual coherence to the project as a whole. The Commission requested that the project team, which at that time was coordinated by DDOT, consult further with the NPS; the firm of Rhodeside & Harwell has also joined the project team to develop the landscape design. He said that the options being presented today for the new park include a design with a central plaza and radial paths, and another option that works with the elliptical geometry to form a double-centered figure, with an elliptical planted area at the center. He asked Tammy Stidham, deputy associate area director for lands and planning of the National Capital Area of the NPS to begin the presentation.
Ms. Stidham said that the existing intersection has several safety deficiencies, and the project is intended to improve pedestrian safety, provide pedestrian connections to transit, and traffic circulation; the proposed reconfiguration of the intersection will create a new pedestrian space at the center that will become a park under the jurisdiction of the NPS. She introduced landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside of Rhodeside & Harwell to present the design alternatives.
Mr. Rhodeside described the existing intersection as chaotic, disorienting, and illogical. He emphasized the need to safely organize the circulation of pedestrians moving from the surrounding neighborhoods to the Metro station, located north of the intersection, as well as the importance of designing the park in the center as a gracious area along Pennsylvania Avenue instead of merely as an engineered utilitarian area to be walked through. Another goal is to reconfigure the intersection to create a civic space as a focal point that could accommodate a future monument. He indicated the alignment of Pennsylvania Avenue that provides an axial organization to the central space, although the dense vegetation planted along its median blocks the view northwest toward the U.S. Capitol throughout the year.
Mr. Rhodeside said that all of the alternatives being presented for the park design have the same outer curb line, and the crosswalks leading to the park are also the same in each alternative. He described Alternative 1 as strongly defined by an elliptical hedge around the park’s perimeter adjacent to the roadway; gently curved walks through the hedge would lead from the pedestrian crosswalks to an inner elliptical plaza containing a slightly mounded planted area at the center. Plantings would include two species of deciduous trees, with an outer ring of swamp white oaks near the hedge providing the predominant vertical element, and crabapples planted on the long sides of the central mound to frame the monumental axis of Pennsylvania Avenue; he noted that crabapples have been planted along the entire length of the avenue’s median. He said that the relatively large central planted area, an ellipse of approximately forty by eighty feet, would create a break in the pedestrian circulation route across Pennsylvania Avenue and would provide a generous location for a possible future monument. The walk surrounding the central ellipse would have numerous benches and would be wide enough to accommodate both hurrying commuters and people out for a stroll. A proposed variation of Alternative 1, labelled Alternative 1A, would omit the crabapples from the central ellipse to allow room for a composition of groundcovers, perennials, bulbs, and other plants that would provide a break in the continuous line of crabapple trees along the avenue and would emphasize the open character of the park.
Mr. Rhodeside described Alternative 2 as a more conventional radial scheme. It would have the same curb line and ring of swamp white oaks as Alternative 1, but with a wider perimeter hedge of large shrubs together with small trees; a paved 35-foot-diameter circular plaza would be placed at the center instead of the elliptical mound; and the crabapple trees would be omitted. A 10-foot-wide walk would be located near the outer edge of the park with a regular succession of double benches, and six straight walks would lead from the crosswalks through the plantings to the central circle, which would have decorative paving and seat walls along its perimeter. Seen in section, in this alternative the grade of the entire park would rise gently from the curbs to the central circle.
Mr. Rhodeside said the NPS has established a generally consistent plant palette for open spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue and more widely for public spaces on Capitol Hill, as well as a materials and furnishings palette which specifies exposed-aggregate concrete, granite cobbles, the standard NPS bench, and the standard D.C. streetlight; these plants and elements are appropriate for either alternative. Alternative 2 would include granite seat walls, granite pavers between the paired benches, and also possibly brick pavers. He described the major tree species, swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), as a rugged, durable, and elegant tree. Alternatives 1 and 1A would use the same variety of crabapple, Malus “Sugar Tyme,” that is planted in the existing median of Pennsylvania Avenue. Other plantings in both alternatives would include primarily evergreen and mostly native shrubs for the hedges, such as winterberry and beautyberry, and a variety of alliums, daffodils, and other hardy, colorful plantings.
Chair Tsien opened the discussion by asking the local members of the Commission to discuss their familiarity with this area, and whether they believe that more green space or more hardscape would be beneficial here. Mr. McCrery said he lives near this neighborhood, and he knows the circle and its chaotic conditions well. He described the confusion of pedestrian access and vehicular traffic coming from all directions; he indicated the broad rights-of-way of the two intersecting L’Enfant Plan avenues, as well as the major multi-modal transfer point between the Metrorail station immediately to the north and the bus stops around the intersection. He agreed that the addition of more plantings and green space would be a positive change. He recalled participating in the previous review in July 2020, when the presented design had consisted of mostly hardscape; the Commission had supported the strong recommendation of former Commission member Elizabeth Meyer for the development of a landscape solution. He agreed this has been the right approach and said he considers both alternatives to be good, clear designs.
Mr. Moore said he would defer to the local members on the question of an appropriate balance of paved and active space with green and passive space, although he expressed agreement with the previous recommendation that a successful design should be primarily a landscape treatment. He expressed concern about the general configuration of the proposed alternatives, observing that they appear more like paper designs than as projects for the real world; he said he is not convinced that either would be a workable, successful urban design. He emphasized that the intersection’s existing planted median bears evidence, in the form of social trails across the grass, that people follow the most convenient routes in their daily movements, but the proposed walks would require people to follow meandering routes for the sake of drawn geometries that might not create usable spaces. While both alternatives would provide an improvement over the existing mess, he suggested making adjustments to provide more direct walk configurations, along with a greater amount of landscape; he said that it may be possible to provide both more space and better circulation by shifting the walks, without the need to create a straight beeline to a destination. He also noted the importance of providing clear sightlines to the Metro station for people walking across the intersection, which may require an adjustment that results in slightly more paved space than illustrated but would still not be predominantly paved; he said both alternatives would benefit from this change.
Mr. Rhodeside responded that the existing social trails were formed because the designated pedestrian circulation currently does not go directly from the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue to the Metro station on the north side, which is the primary destination for most pedestrians. He said the proposed circulation in both alternatives follows a curving route instead of a direct path to destinations, but the circulation will be much more direct than the present walks. He noted that the design team has studied many schemes with parallel walks aligned directly across the park to connect with the crosswalks, but these were all inelegant or even ugly. However, the design team found that slightly modifying the direct alignment of walks through the ellipse allows for the creation of a more gracious, coherent landscape that will fit within the context of Washington’s other civic circles and squares.
Mr. Luebke clarified how the design problem was originally framed: at the time of the previous review, the configuration of the intersection and the location of the six crosswalks leading to the ellipse had been largely fixed through the environmental review process and other studies, which generally limited the Commission to reviewing what would be built within the ellipse. The proposal at that time had direct pedestrian routes within the ellipse, and the Commission had rejected it for this reason, commenting that this was not an acceptable solution because entering the ellipse should be an act of entering a landscape with its own distinct character.
Mr. McCrery observed that the many proposed crosswalks appear to be the design team’s response to accommodating the existing social trails, along with consideration for pedestrian safety, which necessarily results in restricted pedestrian access. Mr. Stroik asked whether the proposed street configuration includes traffic lights; Mr. Rhodeside indicated the four locations for traffic lights. Mr. Stroik commented that traffic lights work well for providing pedestrian access to the central spaces of Washington’s traffic circles; he noted that these circles are not just for vehicles to drive around, and the traffic has to stop to allow people to enter the open space at the center.
Mr. P. Cook observed that landscaped traffic circles and squares are characteristic of Washington, and he asked Mr. Rhodeside if there is any precedent in the city for an elliptical intersection. Mr. Rhodeside said he is not aware of any; the project team has researched the city’s other traffic circles, most of which are circular with a central focal point. He said that the presented alternatives have been designed as landscapes that would provide people with relief from the traffic; although traffic will still flow around the space and generate noise, the sound would be mitigated by a landscaped park composed primarily of hedges, grass panels, and trees, creating a comfortable place of respite. He added that all of the alternatives could incorporate a future monument as a central vertical element.
Mr. P. Cook supported the need for crosswalks to provide designated routes for pedestrians to reach the central space, but he asked if there could be fewer crosswalks with better signalized protection in order to help people cross more safely. Mr. Rhodeside responded that having fewer than six entrance points into the landscaped space would be a serious problem, and the engineering design of the proposed crosswalks, developed during the environmental review process, is thoughtful and logical. He said that six crosswalks had been found to be the right number because it allows pedestrians to cross Pennsylvania Avenue without having to cross other streets; he added that he does not believe the crosswalks would be intrusive. He emphasized that in all alternatives, the crosswalks would bring people to graceful entrance points through a hedge into a peaceful landscape, which he compared to entering Washington Circle on Pennsylvania Avenue at 23rd Street, NW.
Mr. P. Cook observed that the larger reconfiguration of the intersection would include regularizing the outer curb line to define the elliptical traffic flow; the new curb alignment appears to define spaces that would no longer be part of the roadway. He asked whether these areas would have private or public control; if public, he asked what entity would have jurisdiction over these spaces. Mr. Rhodeside confirmed the outer curb alignment that would shape the elliptical traffic circulation pattern; he indicated the bus drop-off and staging area on the north side, along with the regularized road circulation. He emphasized that the new configuration would be a great improvement, and the elliptical traffic flow around the wide central park would serve to calm the traffic that is currently fast-moving.
Chair Tsien acknowledged the design team’s serious study of the issue of crosswalks and entrances, and she suggested defining the primary question before the Commission as whether it is better for habitation of this space to have the center of the ellipse be a planted area or a paved area. Mr. McCrery commented that he believes Alternative 1, the elliptical configuration with the crabapple trees, would present more varied opportunities for urban use and interest than the circular paved space of Alternative 2. He compared the space within the proposed traffic circle to Seward Square, a heavily used park on Capitol Hill that has a similar arrangement of a central, low, landscaped mound with a memorial, surrounded by a wide circular walk; other walks extend from the corners and mid-block locations to the center, dividing the park into separate planted lawns, which are used for different recreational activities.
Mr. Stroik commented that all of the alternatives are appealing, but he asked whether the central ellipse in Alternatives 1 and 1A would be large enough for the proposed landscape designs. Project manager Redeat Lodamo of Brudis & Associates provided dimensions for the total size of the park: the long axis of the ellipse aligned with Pennsylvania Avenue would be 224 feet long, and the perpendicular minor axis would be 116 feet. Mr. Stroik compared the configuration of Alternative 1 to Dupont Circle, which he called the model for a successful park within a Washington traffic circle. Noting that the diameter of Dupont Circle is approximately 360 feet, he questioned whether 116 feet for the cross-axis of the proposed ellipse might be too small in scale. He summarized that he otherwise supports any of the alternatives for the treatment of the central landscape, commenting thought they would provide a successful location for a future monument.
Mr. McCrery compared the geometry of Alternative 1 to the configuration of Ward Circle, located at the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues, NW. He described the park space of Ward Circle as an ellipse within a larger circle; the ellipse is created by the lanes of Nebraska Avenue, which serve as express lanes that allow traffic to pass through the circle efficiently. He said this configuration of ellipse and circle are similar to the geometry proposed in Alternative 1. Mr. Stroik asked if the plantings of hedges and swamp oaks would encourage people to linger in the new park, or whether the park should be treated more as a space to pass through; Mr. McCrery said it would probably function as both. Mr. Stroik compared the proposal to the recent redesign of Columbus Circle in New York, where traffic has been separated from a central area; he said Columbus Circle and Dupont Circle both provide excellent precedents for this new intersection. He recalled that Columbus Circle has a barrier that helps sequester the space; Ms. Tsien confirmed that the central space within Columbus Circle has a slight berm around the perimeter, along with hedges and trees, which make it much quieter.
Mr. McCrery commented that quiet and seclusion are the key to selecting the better option for this project. He observed that Alternative 2 would locate benches uncomfortably close to the perimeter, requiring people to sit near the roads with their backs towards the traffic, which would be uncomfortable and disconcerting. He encouraged the Commission members to support Alternative 1 or 1A, which have the elliptical layout with the landscaped center; if there is agreement for this layout, the Commission can then decide between Alternative 1, with the crabapple trees in the center, or Alternative 1A, with groundcovers and perennials planted in the center. Chair Tsien suggested framing a motion to narrow the options; Mr. McCrery offered a motion to support the layout of Alternatives 1 and 1A, instead of Alternative 2; the Commission adopted this action. Mr. McCrery said that this layout is a huge improvement over the previous submission, and he expressed gratitude to DDOT and the NPS for its development.
Secretary Luebke noted that the new design will create an interesting interlude on the long urban boulevard of Pennsylvania Avenue. He asked if the Commission wants to discuss any further the two options for the treatment of the central landscape, seen in Alternatives 1 and 1A, to guide the staff in working with the project time to refine the design. For example, the treatment could be to leave the central area open, to have it planted with some randomly spaced understory trees, or to use informal groundcovers and other plantings. Mr. Moore reiterated his advice that some further refinements should be made to the widths and geometry of the walks along the primary routes, especially those with sharp corners and odd turns.
Chair Tsien asked the Commission to discuss generally the proposal for plantings in the central ellipse—whether it should be high or low, trees or groundcovers—leaving the specifics to the design team. Referring to Mr. McCrery’s discussion of Ward Circle, Dr. Edwards asked if this new ellipse is intended to function in a similar way. Mr. Luebke noted that Ward Circle is a somewhat different case that provides a solution for efficient vehicular travel. Dr. Edwards said that rather than the physical design of Ward Circle, she is interested in its pedestrian circulation, where pedestrians can push a button to stop traffic at crosswalks. Mr. Luebke said the proposed intersection would have similar vehicular stops at the locations indicated on the plan.
Mr. McCrery expressed support for an open, horizontal planting treatment in the central ellipse instead of trees, for several reasons. First, the planted perimeter with the swamp white oaks would form part of the larger tree canopy lining the outer edge of the Pennsylvania Avenue right-of-way, and he called this a good expansion upon the tradition of street trees. Second, he noted that the underside of the crabapple canopy would be so low that it would prohibit seeing beneath or through them; he therefore strongly advised against planting crabapples in the central ellipse, and he recommended that the design team explore an informal planting for this area. He offered this guidance as a motion; upon a second by Mr. Moore, the Commission adopted this recommendation.
D. D.C. Department of Transportation
CFA 15/JUL/21-3, Pennsylvania Avenue from 17th to 21st Streets, NW. Street reconstruction, streetscape improvements, and new bicycle lanes. Final. (Previous: CFA 19/NOV/20-4) The Commission acted on the submission earlier in the meeting without a presentation, following agenda item II.A.
E. D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development
CFA 15/JUL/21-4, St. Elizabeths East Campus, 1 Pecan Street, SE (Parcel 2). New five- or six-story hospital building with parking garage. Concept. Secretary Luebke introduced the concept design for a new hospital proposed to be built on the historic St. Elizabeths East Campus. It would be located on Parcel 2, the former site of the hospital’s Dorothea Dix Pavilion on the northern section of the East Campus and immediately south of a former agricultural use area that encompasses a horse barn and stables complex; this is now the site of the men's shelter currently under construction. The proposal results from a public-private partnership between the D.C. Government and Universal Health Services, which owns and operates the George Washington University Hospital; the program includes a 136-bed hospital and an ambulatory care pavilion, along with a 500-space parking garage. He said the staff believes the proposal generally conforms to the master plan for the East Campus, and he noted that some of the design alternatives being presented would require zoning relief to proceed. He asked Latrena Owens, executive director for the St. Elizabeths East redevelopment at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, to begin the presentation.
Ms. Owens said the proposal includes alternatives for the height of the building, with an extra floor being contingent on hospital analytics and adequate funding. She said the project is essential to the D.C. Government’s goal to provide high-quality integrated care to all residents by constructing a state-of-the-art facility that includes trauma care, newborn deliveries, maternal health, rehabilitation services, and mental health. She noted that Mayor Muriel Bowser recently broke ground for a Whitman-Walker health care facility and announced a new Congress Heights branch library, both of which are on the St. Elizabeths East Campus; in addition, a new farmers market at the historic horse farm adjacent to the hospital site will soon open. She introduced architect William Hellmuth, chairman and CEO of HOK, to present the design.
Mr. Hellmuth indicated the proposed building site, currently a large surface parking lot; he compared the larger St. Elizabeths East Campus to an abandoned college campus. He commented favorably on the collection of historic brick and limestone buildings, which he said have narrow massings with an almost residential scale, as they contained primarily hospital beds. He said the proposal is intended to be sensitive to this historic context: while the new design includes brick as a material, it is not used in a historicist manner. Instead, the design works with the existing buildings and context through scale and material. He said zoning for the site allows for a building with heights ranging from forty to eighty to ninety feet. The proposal provides an eighty-foot setback from the edge of the site, which allows for a generous landscape area to the west along Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE. To the east of the site is a steep hillside that is heavily wooded; a Metrorail tunnel is also adjacent to the site.
Mr. Hellmuth said the main hospital building, called the bed tower, would be T-shaped in plan, with a core at the convergence point of the three wings. The narrow end of the shorter east–west wing would face toward Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, with the long bar set further back and arranged north–south; this massing arrangement locates the bulk of the building further back from the avenue and is intended to make the building recede visually. The bed tower would rise from a two-story base that would contain diagnostic and treatment functions. The base would have extensive glazing, along with an outdoor seating area for the cafeteria at the southwest corner; the low height, glazing, and outdoor seating are intended to give the building a human scale that is often lacking in hospital design. The waiting rooms would also be located near the perimeter of the building to allow for views in and out, aiding in wayfinding and giving people the opportunity to see other people rather than blank walls. The primary entrance would be on the hospital’s south side along the rebuilt Pecan Street; the southern end of the long north–south wing would project over the entrance driveway, creating a porte-cochere. The emergency room entrance would be on the west side of the building with a separate access drive from the north. The ambulatory pavilion would be on the east, connected to the bed tower; to the southeast of this complex would be a four-level parking garage built into the hillside, with only the top level fully visible from the west.
Mr. Hellmuth said the bed tower is proposed to be faced with brick, while the base and ambulatory wing would be clad with gray- and terracotta-colored precast concrete panels. The proposed architecture and fenestration pattern of the bed tower is derived from the design of the patient rooms, which feature book-matched layouts and large, canted windows that give the patient a view outside from the bed; this results in the facades being approximately 25 percent glass. He presented two alternative configurations for the mechanical penthouse. The preferred rectangular configuration would allow for an open area of the roof at the west to serve as a helipad, but it would require zoning relief because the penthouse enclosure does not conform to the required 1:1 setback; the alternative for a T-shaped configuration would comply with the required setback, but the penthouse would take up most of the space on the roof, requiring the helipad to be located elsewhere, likely within the landscape. He presented perspective views of the new hospital and garage from several vantage points, including from an upper floor of the men’s shelter, from the vehicular drop-off area, and from the valley to the east of the site.
Mr. Hellmuth indicated the areas of the landscape that would be planted with bioswales for stormwater management. He said the landscape plan proposes retaining many trees, although some will have to be removed when the adjacent avenue is widened. He indicated the proposed landscape area to the west of the hospital building and the proposed plantings for the vertical surfaces of the parking garage.
Chair Tsien thanked the project team for its presentation and invited questions from the Commission members. Mr. P. Cook asked how this proposal relates to the larger master plan for the St. Elizabeths East Campus, particularly for the areas south of the new hospital. Mr. Hellmuth said the proposed south-facing main entrance is intended to relate to whatever is developed in the historic buildings to the south; the proposal anticipates the reconstruction of Pecan Street and the future pedestrian traffic from the south, which are primary components of the master plan. Ms. Owens noted that the East Campus master plan calls for relocating one of the historic buildings, formerly used as a morgue; Mr. Hellmuth said this would allow for more contiguous open space between the hospital and the Maple Quad to the south. He emphasized that the connection between the outdoors and health is important to the design.
Chair Tsien invited comments from the Commission members, noting that the Commission does not have jurisdiction regarding the issue of a zoning variance. Secretary Luebke said the Commission could choose to provide comments on the design of the penthouse that would inform discussions with D.C. zoning officials; such comments could include whether it would be beneficial to consolidate the rooftop appurtenances and have a smaller setback for the penthouse, thereby freeing up roof space for the helipad and possibly resulting in the penthouse having less of a visual impact on the building and site. He added that the Commission’s advice regarding the height of the bed tower—three versus four stories above the hospital’s two-story base—could also be helpful in further discussions regarding the project.
Mr. Moore provided several comments regarding the site design of the proposal. He expressed appreciation for the effort to coordinate this project with adjacent uses, such as the men’s shelter. However, he said that the building and landscape design on the northern side of the hospital, adjacent to the shelter, could be improved with refinement of the facade design and additional screening. He observed that care has been taken in designing the more public-facing sides of the building, and he said that the side facing the shelter would benefit from similar care; with the current proposal, views from the shelter’s lower floors the toward the hospital would likely be less appealing than those from the higher floors, and he noted that the presented rendering of this area features a large tree concealing this view. More generally, he said that the landscape design needs further resolution and documentation in the next submission. He recalled that the landscape design of the recently reviewed Department of Homeland Security project on the St. Elizabeths West Campus was very well resolved and was given as much importance as the building architecture; he said a similar level of care should be given to the new hospital’s landscape, especially since the site would have substantially more public access than the Department of Homeland Security project. He questioned whether the open space to the west of the hospital, designated as parkland, is sufficiently designed to be a park or public landscape, commenting that it looks like it was designed by a building architect rather than a landscape architect. He added that the eastern edge of the site along the ravine should be designed to support the wildlife that likely lives there.
Ms. Tsien expressed admiration for the massing of the proposed building, commenting that she likes its sense of weightiness, and for the humane qualities of the overall design, which she observed is extrapolated from the basic unit of a patient’s room. She said she also likes the corbel-like window detailing, which makes the windows feel deep. She expressed support for the terracotta-colored precast panels, suggesting they also be used on the two-level base instead of the proposed gray; she said this would help make the building feel more whole and build upon on the quality of material thickness seen in the building. Observing that the idea of weight and solidity is important in the design, she said she prefers the lower height of three stories for the bed tower, which makes it feel more grounded. Regarding the penthouse, she expressed support for the project team’s preferred option of a rectangular configuration, commenting that this continuous form would appear recessive, while the T-shaped configuration would call too much attention to itself.
Secretary Luebke summarized the Commission’s support for the concept, noting that several aspects of the design need to be further developed in response to the comments provided; he said the Commission could request a revised concept submission before reviewing the final design. Chair Tsien noted that Mr. Moore had several comments regarding the site design; Mr. Moore suggested that the Commission could approve the concept design with the understanding that further resolution of the landscape and facade designs would be submitted for a revised concept review. Mr. Hellmuth noted that the site design, by landscape architect Don Hoover of Oculus, is still being developed in collaboration with the civil engineer, and a full presentation of the landscape was eliminated from the presentation due to time constraints.
Mr. R.M. Cook offered a motion to approve the design with the comments provided, and with the understanding that the project would return as a revised concept before the submission of a final design. Upon a second by Mr. Moore, the Commission adopted this action.
F. D.C. Department of General Services
1. CFA 15/JUL/21-5, Anacostia Recreation Center at Ketcham Elementary School, 1929 15th Street, SE. New community recreation center building and activities fields. Concept. Secretary Luebke introduced the concept design for a new community recreation center to be located adjacent to the historic Ketcham Elementary School and within the Anacostia Historic District, submitted by the D.C. Department of General Services on behalf of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). The 12,000-square-foot building would provide the community with a gymnasium and space for fitness, yoga, art, and other community uses; the outdoor space would include a multi-use field, walking track, two children's playgrounds, and a pedestrian promenade. The massing would be divided into two volumes with expressive forms. He said the staff has participated in several consultation meetings with the project team and other agencies such as the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, which is generally supportive of the direction of the design. He asked David Wooden of DPR to begin the presentation. Mr. Wooden said DPR has been working with the community and the design team to develop a robust program for the relatively small site; he introduced architects Edgar Moreno and Robert Widger of DLR Group to present the design.
Mr. Moreno said the existing historic school was built in 1908 and was subsequently expanded, with the last addition constructed in the 1960s. The context to the south, east, and west of the site is single-family houses and small apartment buildings; the houses are a mixture of brick and wood, with front porches set close to the sidewalk. To the north is the commercial corridor of Good Hope Road. Civic buildings in the neighborhood include the Ketcham Elementary School and D.C. Prep School, which was expanded several years ago; he noted that D.C. Prep is white brick, while Ketcham is a yellow-buff color. He said the proposed location for the building is currently an open green space used by the elementary school; the seven-foot rise along 15th Street was studied in order to establish the finished floor level to allow for service and barrier-free access. He said the community has expressed support for creating an active destination for gathering, exercising, and skill building, with a particular emphasis on engaging young adults. The new project is also seen as a way to enhance safety and security in the area, and to support the community’s aspirations to fulfill its potential as it looks toward a future of growth.
Mr. Moreno said that having the new building front 15th Street to the east was an early preference of DPR intended to address security concerns and emphasize the building’s civic presence. This configuration also allows for reestablishment of the U Street right-of-way between 14th and 15th Streets for pedestrian use, along the north side of the building. He said the site is organized around this central pedestrian promenade, which links together the site elements and accommodates access to the existing school building to the north; the promenade would be detailed with decorative colored and textured concrete. He noted that the school and the proposed DPR facility would share use of the outdoor facilities and the new gymnasium. A walking path would surround the field and playground areas; stormwater would be managed with several bioretention areas. He described the building floorplan, indicating the location of the gymnasium, the main entrance, and the separate gymnasium entrance for the Ketcham students to use during the day. Other program elements include a fitness room, two multipurpose rooms, and a technology lounge; these spaces would have extensive glazing to allow outward views as well as views inward for security and supervision.
Mr. Widger said the community desires a neighborhood recreation center that is uplifting, exciting, and points to a better future. The design expresses these values through its one-story volumes with projecting roof and parapet forms that rise and angle upward, giving the building an inspirational character. He said the design is derived from the context, with the building scale intended to be transitional between the neighborhood and school. The ten-foot-tall storefront enclosure system is intended to tie the building to the pedestrian promenade and to the neighborhood, particularly the activity on 15th Street. The storefront glazing would be interrupted by brick piers to give a faceted appearance, provide sun shading, and modulate the long facade to have a residential scale; the piers would also reference the design of the nearby historic school. The facade system would wrap around the north side of the building to define an outdoor space reminiscent of the residential porches seen in the neighborhood.
Mr. Widger presented the proposed palette of materials. In addition to the storefront and brick, a wood veneer panel system would be used on the facades; this material was selected because of its warm appearance, as well as its resistance to fading and graffiti. He said that the projecting elements at the rooflines would help integrate the two volumes, as well as provide visual screening for rooftop mechanical equipment, eliminating the need for a separate mechanical enclosure. He noted that these elements may require a zoning variance.
Chair Tsien invited questions and comments from the Commission members. Mr. Moore asked for more information about the proposed design of the public space between the building site and the sidewalk. Landscape architect Bruno Carvalho of Carvalho & Good said that the design intent is to create an urban edge between the building and 15th Street. He said there would be a seven-foot-tall perimeter fence enclosing much of the site, including the pedestrian promenade, to secure it outside of public hours; in some areas, the edge of the site would be secured by the building itself. Mr. Moore encouraged development of a more elegant and welcoming design for the fence, with particular attention to the gate at the pedestrian promenade in both its open and closed positions. Mr. Carvalho noted that the proposed perimeter fence would tie into the school site’s existing perimeter fence.
Mr. McCrery recalled that Mr. Widger had presented another project to the Commission that had forms very similar to the current proposal; however, the architect has claimed that the similar architectural forms of each project are informed by discrete neighborhood and community desires, in addition to program needs. He questioned whether this can be true of both projects, and he suggested instead that these forms are Mr. Widger’s preferred mode of architecture; he asked why the similar architectural forms are appropriate for both this project as well as the Joy Evans Therapeutic Recreation Center near Fort Dupont Park that was reviewed by the Commission in January and March 2021. While emphasizing that he likes modern architecture, he said that he would likely abstain from voting on this proposal.
Mr. Widger responded that there are significant differences in the forms of the two projects; for instance, the projecting element at the roofline of the therapeutic recreation center had an inclined soffit, and the piers along its facade were more closely spaced, which was intended to imitate the adjacent forest. He said the residential character of that building came from its sloping roof, and its roofline was much lower than in the current proposal. He agreed that some of the roof’s features are similar, but when compared side-by-side they have a completely different character. Mr. McCrery said that the two buildings clearly appear designed by the same architect, and this particular expression seems to be his preferred mode of design rather than being derived from community input. Mr. Widger acknowledged that the two buildings may have a similar material palette and roof shape, but he said he does not think they look the same. Mr. McCrery reiterated his concern that the architect’s limited range of design ideas has resulted in these two very similar buildings being presented to the Commission.
Chair Tsien said she would like to take the discussion in a different direction, while acknowledging the valuable insights of the local Commission members who know Washington well. She observed that the proposed roofline bears a slight similarity to the crown-shaped form of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and she asked if this is an intentional reference; Mr. Widger said the building form is not intentionally derived from the museum. Ms. Tsien noted that porches are an important part of many cultures, citing the porches seen in the neighborhood; however, she commented that the proposed design does not have a strong sense of entry and protection, nor a real porch where people are welcomed to sit. She said that because the design has such a strong focus on form-making, the space-making appears muted.
Mr. P. Cook said he agrees with these comments, finding that the main entrance blends into the background and does not appear celebrated. He said preliminary descriptions of the building as being tan masonry had him concerned that it would be a civic building that just blends into the background. However, after seeing the proposed design he observes the opposite: a wildly exuberant building that needs editing and a reconsideration of the approach sequence for visitors, which should be emphasized over form-making.
Mr. Moore agreed that the design appears focused on form, particularly the projecting parapets. Although the stated intention is to design a building that engages both the historic school property and the surrounding neighborhood, he said the places where people are welcomed into the new facility should be much more prominent and reflected in the design language, which is currently dominated by the distracting parapet forms. He expressed concern about the perimeter, including thresholds and access control points for the new facility; he advised developing a stronger connection and dialogue between the building architecture and the landscape design.
Mr. R.M. Cook said he has spent a lot of time in the Anacostia River area, having worked on the Millennium Gate project for Barney Circle. He recalled that the area has great vernacular architecture that is not included in the analysis of the neighborhood character nor reflected in the proposed design. He said this community deserves a building that is more sensitive to the vernacular context, with familiar features for welcoming people; he cited the porches seen throughout the neighborhood. He said this would help bring people together, which is needed more than ever, but the proposed design is separating people.
Mr. Stroik said he agrees with all the previous comments. He commented that architects have a desire to be creative and good, mixed with a helpful sense of ego that enables their work. However, this public building is an instance where the community should be served first. He suggested that the design be more focused on serving and respecting the materials, language, and details of the neighborhood.
Ms. Tsien said she is skeptical about using wood veneer as a facade and roof material, finding that it requires maintenance and does not wear well despite manufacturers’ claims; even solid, treated wood can require a lot of maintenance. Regarding the landscape, she questioned the perimeter fence in its entirety. She said the project’s goal should be to make the site better in its service to the community.
Mr. McCrery suggested a motion for the project team to reconsider the design, taking into consideration the comments of the Commission. Secretary Luebke noted that an action is not necessary if the Commission does not wish to approve the project; instead, the Commission could provide its comments for the development of the design and request another submission. Chair Tsien expressed support for this procedure, and Mr. McCrery withdrew his motion. Mr. Luebke summarized that the comments related to materiality, maintenance, a rethinking of the perimeter and enclosure system, and the request for emphasizing the community’s use of the building over architectural form-making. Chair Tsien added that the project’s overall planning appears reasonable. The discussion concluded without a formal action.
2. CFA 15/JUL/21-6, DC Preparatory Academy Public Charter School at Wilkinson Elementary School (currently the DC Infrastructure Academy), 2330 Pomeroy Road, SE. Building modernization and alterations. Concept. The Commission acted on the submission earlier in the meeting without a presentation, following agenda item II.A.
G. D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—Shipstead-Luce Act
SL 21-152, 2400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Chancery Annex of the United Arab Emirates. Three-story addition. Concept. Secretary Luebke introduced the concept design for an addition at 2400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, to the existing chancery annex building of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at 2406 Massachusetts Avenue. The addition would replace an existing building that was constructed around 1922 as a three-story single-family residence; it was later significantly altered with extensive modifications of the front facade. He said that both the project site and the existing Chancery Annex lie within two historic districts—Sheridan-Kalorama and Massachusetts Avenue. The building to be demolished had been classified as contributing to these historic districts primarily because of its construction date, but it has been determined that enough change has occurred to compromise its original character, and the D.C. Historic Preservation Office (HPO) has no objection to its demolition and replacement.
Mr. Luebke said that the existing Chancery Annex building at 2406 Massachusetts Avenue was designed in the Beaux Arts style by the noted Washington architect Nathan Wyeth and constructed in 1911 as a private residence. Previously serving as the residence of the UAE ambassador, it was converted to the Chancery Annex in 2015; the conversion included the construction of a new office wing on the rear, facing the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, that was designed in a modern style to contrast with the Beaux Arts facade. He noted that the extensive conversion project was submitted to the Commission for concept review in 2011 and approved, but the project was never submitted at the permit stage. The current project proposes joining the historic Wyeth building with the new building at 2400 Massachusetts using a new hyphen so that they will function as a single unit. The proposed massing is intended to make the two buildings appear as separate structures, although the facade of the new building would closely replicate the architecture of the Wyeth building.
Mr. Luebke noted that Washington’s embassy properties follow a slightly different process for local approval than other structures, in accordance with the Foreign Missions Act. This federal law allows for more lenient interpretations of zoning and historic preservation regulations in considering embassy properties; however, embassy properties are not exempted from the Commission’s Shipstead-Luce Act jurisdiction. This jurisdiction does not specifically address historic preservation, nor does it involve local zoning; the Commission should therefore conduct its normal design review process for a Shipstead-Luce Act project, with no requirement for any special leniency. He added that the HPO concurs with the opinion that there is no connection between the Commission’s review and the Foreign Missions Act’s leniency. He said that notwithstanding any comments that might be made by the project team, the Commission should expect to see this project for full review at both the concept and permit phases, in accordance with the normal Shipstead-Luce Act process.
Mr. Luebke introduced attorney Carolyn Brown of the Brown Law Firm to begin the presentation. Ms. Brown noted that she disagrees with Mr. Luebke’s interpretation of the review process under the Foreign Missions Act, but this issue is probably not germane to today’s review. She introduced architectural historian Andi Adams to continue the presentation.
Ms. Adams discussed the project within the rich architectural and streetscape context of Massachusetts Avenue. She said the design goal is the creation of a unified diplomatic complex that is consistent with the vision of the UAE ambassador and is similar to other diplomatic complexes in the neighborhood. She noted that the Commission has Shipstead-Luce Act jurisdiction over these properties because both are adjacent to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway; presenting views from the parkway at different times of the year, she indicated that heavy vegetation in the summer partially blocks the rear view of 2406 Massachusetts and entirely obscures the view of 2400 Massachusetts.
Ms. Adams said the original 1921 permit application for 2400 Massachusetts was for construction of a three-story single-family house, to be built by the real estate development firm W.C. & A.N. Miller and probably designed by its in-house architect, Gordon McNeill. At some point before 1977, it was reconfigured as a four-story house by converting and possibly lowering the basement level, which now includes a garage and an under-scaled front door. She said that these changes did not improve the front facade, which is now architecturally undistinguished; the project team believes that razing the building at 2400 and replacing it with a better design will improve the streetscape.
Ms. Adams said that this area of Massachusetts Avenue has been known as “Embassy Row” since the early twentieth century, and she presented photographs of some of the diplomatic buildings exhibiting a range of architectural styles that characterize this neighborhood. The site’s immediate neighbors include the Embassy of Madagascar to the south at 2374 Massachusetts Avenue and the Embassy of Malawi to the north at 2408. In this area, as well as throughout the city, can be found diplomatic complexes comprising multiple buildings, or buildings plus additions, that are unified through their designs. Nearby examples include the Embassy of Japan at 2516 Massachusetts Avenue, with the original building by Delano & Aldrich; the more recent Embassy of Turkey at 2525 Massachusetts Avenue, which she noted had been approved through the same Foreign Missions Act review process that is being followed for the new UAE building. She presented historic photographs of 2406 Massachusetts as it appeared in 1915, and she ended with a comparison of the buildings at 2400 and 2406, indicating the difference in their architectural character and quality.
Continuing the presentation, project architect Addison Nottingham of ACG Architects described more details of the existing conditions and the proposed design, which is intended to combine the 2400 and 2406 buildings into a unified complex for the Chancery Annex as requested by the UAE ambassador. The existing four-story structure at 2400 has relatively low ceiling heights, and its floor levels are very misaligned with those of the 2406 building. The existing front yard at 2400 is largely occupied by a paved parking area accessed by a large curb cut on Massachusetts Avenue; pedestrians traverse this paving to reach the front door. He presented a photograph of the rear facade and yard of 2400, which he described as clearly not of special interest.
Mr. Nottingham said that the proposal for demolition of 2400 Massachusetts allows for the construction of a new building that would be architecturally related to the more distinguished 2406 building, which would remain. The new building at 2400 would be three stories high, and its upper floors levels would be aligned with those of 2406; the buildings would be connected at the second and third floors, allowing for integrated programmatic relationships and simplified emergency egress. The new building at 2400 would serve as the entrance and public space for the Chancery Annex and would house some of the operations that are currently located at 2406, including the consular section and education department. A recessed glazed hyphen would be located between the upper floors of the two buildings; beneath the hyphen, an existing at-grade car elevator would continue to provide access to the below-grade parking, which would be extended to add several spaces at the basement level of the 2400 building. The proposed front facade at 2400 is intended to relate to the rhythm and material palette of Wyeth’s facade at 2406 to create this appearance of a unified facility, while being adapted to the much narrower frontage at 2400. The rear of 2400 would be an extension of the recently constructed rear of 2406—a carefully designed modern facade composed of metal panels, glass curtainwall, and exterior louvers for solar shading. The rear terrace facing the park at 2406 would be extended across the rear of 2400. He noted that the same modern glazing system used at the rear facade would be used for the recessed hyphen that would be visible from Massachusetts Avenue.
Mr. Nottingham presented the proposed plans, elevations, and sections. The front yard at 2400 would be changed to primarily landscaping; a walkway from the Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk to the center entry would have a shallow slope, not requiring handrails. The entrance would be framed by a portico with a balcony railing above, derived from the similar entrance feature at 2406. The proposed front facade is intended to emulate the quality of detailing at 2406, as requested by the ambassador; the building heights would be aligned, along with horizontal features such as the water table, parapet, and a belt course between the first and second floors. Above the three occupied floors, the attic level would contain mechanical equipment, screened from Massachusetts Avenue by a balustrade and faux mansard; other roof areas would be planted as green roofs. The site section drawing illustrates the drop of 70 feet from Massachusetts Avenue to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. He summarized that the proposal would create a unified Chancery Annex complex for the UAE, while the modern butt-glazed link between the two buildings would separate them and accentuate the differences in their scale and proportions.
Ms. Tsien began the discussion by asking about the exterior materials of the proposed building at 2400 and of the existing Wyeth building at 2406. Mr. Nottingham responded that the Wyeth building’s exterior is brick, which has been painted due to concerns about water infiltration; the proposed building would also be painted brick. Ms. Tsien asked if the new brick would be laid or panelized; Mr. Nottingham confirmed that it would be laid. He added that the existing windows at 2406 are wood; the proposed windows at 2400 are insulated wood window units that replicate the historic windows of 2406, including their mullion pattern, as closely as possible.
Mr. Stroik asked how the design team would ensure that the new building at 2400 has craftsmanship of as high a quality as that used for the restoration of 2406; Mr. Nottingham responded that contractors with skilled craftsmen would be selected. Mr. Stroik emphasized that the craftsmanship will be as important as the architectural design. He asked if the recent process of restoring the Wyeth building has helped the project team learn how to achieve this quality in the new building, or whether more research would be necessary. Mr. Nottingham said that the project team had gained a great deal of knowledge through the restoration of the 2406 building; for example, while most of the solid masonry walls were technically sound, it was necessary to repair cracks and relevel some masonry, work that would not be an issue in new construction. He added that the depth of the foundation is also a factor.
Mr. Stroik asked why the hyphen is being designed in a modern style that is not related to the existing or the proposed architecture. Mr. Nottingham said this design results from discussions with the HPO staff; the conclusion was to clarify rather than obscure the distinction between the historic and the new building, and to maintain the visibility of the Wyeth building’s southeast corner. He clarified the concern that connecting the new building at 2400 directly to the existing Wyeth building would confuse the history of the site, and he reiterated that the rear facade of the recent addition to 2406 is similarly composed of metal panels and glass curtainwall. Mr. Luebke observed that the desire to visually separate the buildings would explain why the hyphen is recessed; Mr. McCrery commented that this reasoning for the location does not explain why the hyphen is designed to look the way it does, which is what Mr. Stroik was asking.
Mr. R.M. Cook commented that the HPO staff has apparently directed the design team to follow the guidance of established standards for historic preservation, which call for differentiating new additions. He commented that, based on the drawings, the hyphen appears to be expertly designed and would essentially disappear from view; he said that if the detailing and craftsmanship is as good as it appears in the rendering, the design will be successful. Mr. P. Cook expressed support for the proposal to create a Modernist hyphen linking the two structures; he observed that its contrasting style would help to separate the authentically historic Wyeth building from the faux historicism of the new 2400 building, while also distinguishing the hyphen itself from both masonry buildings. Questioning the characterization of the new building’s design as inauthentic, Mr. McCrery noted that there are contemporary practitioners of classical architecture who design buildings that look like the one proposed.
Mr. McCrery offered general agreement that the proposed design is strong. He observed that the presentation included good examples of relating newer and older embassy buildings; these neighborhood precedents are so powerfully designed that they raise the bar for the current project. He cited the Embassy of Turkey as having a fine example of a more contemporary but still formidable design for a hyphen; in comparison, he said that the proposed hyphen at the UAE complex looks somewhat timid. He encouraged the design team to create a bold design that is not too spare, suggesting the example of the nearby Embassy of Brazil, which he called an austere yet beautiful, straightforward Modernist glass building.
Mr. McCrery said a critical element at the hyphen design will be the design of its security gate at the vehicular driveway. Observing that the perspective rendering depicts a standard, ordinary type of gate, he emphasized that the gate presents the opportunity for a beautiful design statement that would look especially good against the backdrop of the pure Modernist hyphen structure. He noted that the UAE has a rich tradition of ironwork that could serve as the inspiration for a wonderful new gate. While acknowledging that the gate would require modern security features, he urged the design team to take advantage of this opportunity to go further, noting that he is a classicist urging the designers to go further with their Modernism.
Mr. McCrery recommended more careful consideration in designing the new building’s portico to recall the existing classical portico at 2406. He observed that the existing portico supports a railing enclosing a balcony on its roof; the railing makes sense because there is a pair of doors in the wall behind it, implying that the balcony can be occupied. However, the rendering of the porch on the proposed building at 2400 shows a railing but no doorway, which he called illogical. Mr. Nottingham said that a lower jib panel could be added to the bottom of the window to provide access to the balcony. Mr. McCrery suggested that a proper door or pair of doors could be added; he acknowledged that this may have to be just a visual reference because of security concerns, but it would give a reason for the railing’s presence.
Mr. McCrery similarly suggested greater care in designing the belt course at 2400, which would copy the existing belt course at the top of the first floor of 2406. He observed that the belt course at 2406 is aligned with the portico roof, providing the advantage of receiving the protruding profiles of the portico’s cornice. However, this alignment is absent in the proposed design for 2400: the cornice of the new portico is not shown correctly aligned with the belt course but is instead set slightly below it. He summarized that the intent to carefully reproduce elements of Wyeth’s design invites the comparison between the two buildings, and the details should be executed correctly.
Mr. McCrery said his final comment concerns the proposed mansard roof on the new building. He supported the intent to replicate the mansard roof of the Wyeth building, but he said the narrow, symmetrical form as seen in the front elevation would look peculiar, like a Renaissance hat, and it also looks odd without a dormer window. Acknowledging that a true dormer would not be useful here because the mansard roof would be merely a screen for mechanical equipment without an attic story behind it, he suggested adding a decorative element that resembles a dormer. Mr. Nottingham noted that such a feature would not be visible from the street due to the balustrade.
Mr. Moore agreed with the comments of the other Commission members about refining the hyphen design, while supporting it as a good way to provide a distinction between the new and old buildings. He also agreed with Mr. McCrery that the details of the proposed building do not work well, including the proportions and alignments, and apparently the staff-level guidance has not led to resolution of these issues. He commented that although the problem with the mansard roof may not be immediately noticeable from the adjacent street, it might be conspicuous from other vantage points, and the issue therefore requires further study. He said that refinement of the roof design is necessary regardless of its style or its relationship to the historic building at 2406; he recommended studying the broader streetscape to see if a language of variation and difference exists that could suggest a successful approach.
Ms. Tsien commented that the architect is responsible for designing the quality of the craft and other details that will make a building either a real design or a pastiche; the design should then be transmitted to great craftspeople. She said she has confidence because the architecture firm for the current project was also responsible for renovating the historic building, providing enough familiarity with the nuances of the historic design to give the new building design integrity and to make the new building successful. She said the design team’s love of the historic building should be expressed in the further development of the design.
Mr. Stroik supported these comments, and he offered an additional recommendation for the new building’s northeast corner. Indicating a perspective rendering of this area, he suggested adding a first-floor window to the blank wall of the side facade, which would bring more daylight into the room behind; he asked if there is a functional reason not to place a window in this location. Mr. Nottingham responded that the floor level of the nearby entry foyer is below the primary level of the first floor, allowing the front walk to have a shallow slope without railings, and an interior mechanical lift would be located at this northeast corner to accommodate the difference in floor levels. Mr. Stroik acknowledged the difficulty of putting a window there; Mr. Nottingham added that a window may be possible if it is designed not to expose an unsightly side view of the equipment. Mr. McCrery suggested that the side facade could be designed to include a recessed brick area with a jack arch above, to give a clean look; Mr. Stroik recommended considering this approach.
Secretary Luebke summarized that the Commission members have provided a variety of comments, some in support of the proposed design vocabulary and others questioning the contrast of architectural styles. He said that if the Commission chooses to approve the proposed concept, it would be approving the new building’s literal replication of the historic building’s architecture. He noted that the presented examples of diplomatic complexes on Massachusetts Avenue did not include any that directly parallel this project; the other examples included separate buildings that were later connected, or in the case of the Embassy of Turkey, a multi-pavilion complex that was built at one time. He said that the staffs of both the Commission and the HPO have advised that a traditional neoclassical infill between the two buildings is probably not appropriate, and this would also not be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards; if the Commission prefers an entirely traditional design vocabulary, then the project might be better treated as simply an expansion of the historic building. He requested that the Commission take an action that clarifies its preference, in order to provide guidance to the staff and the project team.
Mr. McCrery discouraged the adoption of a strict rule for whether an addition to an important historic building has to be visually differentiated from it. He said that requiring differentiation would have prevented the expansion of the Dulles International Airport terminal in a way that replicated the original building. He observed that the entirely legitimate approach of expanding buildings in a consistent style has only been called into question since the mid-20th century. He said some building additions replicate historic designs while some are differentiated, and he believes both can be entirely legitimate solutions; a rule that excludes a historic design approach would be unreasonable and unwise. He said the design for the current project appears to be successful, and he expressed support for the proposal to differentiate the two buildings with the Modernist hyphen.
Mr. R.M. Cook agreed with Mr. McCrery’s comments; he reiterated the importance of ensuring a high level of craftsmanship and advised that the new design be deferential to the historic architecture. Mr. Moore said he supports the position of the HPO and Commission staffs that replicating the historic building’s design vocabulary throughout the new project would not be the appropriate approach. However, he said he is deferring to Mr. McCrery’s comments on refining specific design features; he joined in emphasizing the need for a high level of craftsmanship and recommended better resolution of the scale, design, and configuration of the porch and other elements.
Ms. Tsien said that although she is not a classical architect, she trusts the intentions of the client and the design team to create a building of equal quality to the historic building. She said that in her architectural practice they follow the requests of their clients, a practice that has guided her position on this review. Mr. P. Cook observed that there are other precedents along Massachusetts Avenue for connecting a new building to a historic building using a modern hyphen; he expressed strong support for the proposed organization of the project.
Mr. McCrery offered a motion to approve the proposed concept design for the new building at 2400 Massachusetts Avenue with the comments to reconsider the mansard roof; to correct the alignment and relationship of the entrance porch and belt course; to add some sort of new doorway to the second-floor balcony above the portico; to consider using a window or recessed panel near the northeast corner of the first floor; and to treat the driveway security gate as an element that participates in the design of the complex, perhaps using the inspiration of historic UAE ironwork traditions. Upon a second by Mr. R.M. Cook, the Commission adopted this action.
There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned at 3:53 p.m.
Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA