Traditional Architecture

Building from Another Capitol Hill

[caption id="attachment_1170" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Front Elevation"][/caption] Architecture comes in all shapes and sizes, and from all periods of history. Capitol Hill is fortunate to have a fairly good representation of many historic and contemporary designs. Although most of the buildings in our neighborhood  can be loosely grouped together into any number of 'styles', there are subsets within these larger categories that may have only a few, or perhaps only one representative. The novelty of singularity may at first draw one's attention, but good design is what sustains interest after the initial infatuation has passed. Good design is indeed the case with a modest little building on 231 Summit Avenue East, mid-block between John and Thomas Streets, a building which combines an unusual design approach (for our Capitol Hill) with good design, a design more likely being found on that other Capitol Hill, the one on the Potomac.

[caption id="attachment_1180" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Oblique Elevation"][/caption]

My education as an architect and that of the majority of my colleagues did not delve into historical 'styles' or the vernacular. The history of architecture I was taught presented a building within the cultural context and time within which it was conceived, as well the underlying environmental and technological forces key to its formation.  The teaching of 'styles' and a formal-based approach to design -- and by formal I mean divorcing a building's execution from the above mentioned narratives and emphasizing form (geometry, scale, and proportion) -- was largely dismissed. Older generations of architects, however, received an education that was style based, resulting in buildings being designed with an emphasis on principles that had been vetted through many centuries of practice; however, while oftentimes visually pleasing, such form-based design was not always grounded within its cultural-time. The teaching of styles had its roots in the European academies, especially in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and exercised a tremendous impact on early American architecture that continued through the beginnings of the twentieth century, where its force was greatest on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and was slowly diluted as one headed west.

[caption id="attachment_1171" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Exterior Corridor South"][/caption]

Two-hundred thirty-one East Summit falls within the Beaux-Arts approach. The composition of its street elevation -- and a composition indeed it is -- has a formality and understanding of proportion and decorative motifs that indicate an aesthetic rooted in the cultural influences of the East Coast, rather than in the 'pioneer' aesthetic of the Pacific Northwest. Its materials and details are further revealing, including fair-faced (and very red) brick, instead of the more rustic materials common to NW design (think of Anhalt's clinker bricks), as well as terra-cotta trim with thematic elements derived not from nature, but from a pedagogy emphasizing  geometric purity and crispness. The openings if horizontal are sub-divided by windows that have a human (vertical) proportion, or are simply vertical themselves. The exterior corridor/colonnade harkens to east coast cities such as (the other) Georgetown or colonial Boston, cities whose original densities are similar to our Capitol Hill but were built of brick instead of wood (as a means to suppress fire) in a proximity close enough to each other to lead to the development of colonnades, allowing light to penetrate deeper into the building and giving merchants greater venue within which to display their wares.

[caption id="attachment_1173" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Exterior Corridor North"][/caption]

Built in 1925, the architects who designed this handsome little building were not doubt educated and well versed in these older traditions. The faithful and skilled execution of 231 to its guiding design principles makes it a welcomed contributor to the built quality of our neighborhood, and holds many a lesson for architects today, in a tidy, easily digestible package. And though I have both feet firmly planted in the modernist tradition, that tradition's emphasis on continual re-invention and emphasis on originality often comes at the expense of the good for the interesting. Irrespective of one's particular design preferences, we can all learn from buildings such as 231 that are first good, with a little interest added for zest. That so much thought was spent on a very small building makes it even more precious, for similar to the cottages I wrote of several weeks ago, one would be hard pressed to find such a small (or even large), well-crafted building constructed today, ranking it amongst my favorite little anomalies on our Hill.