Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
From the old Wonder Bread bakery in Shaw to the former Hecht Co. warehouse on New York Avenue to the Old Post Office not far from the White House, vacant buildings around our region are coming back to life. Thanks to the popularity of “adaptive reuse,” communities are increasingly preserving historic structures and retrofitting them for new tenants. Architect Roger Lewis joins Kojo to explore how adaptive reuse is helping to revitalize D.C.
- Rebecca Miller Executive Director, D.C. Preservation League
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Roger Lewis is here. You've probably driven by the old Hecht Company warehouse on New York Avenue a million times and wondered about the fate of this landmark building. Or maybe you're curious about the old Wonder Bread bakery in Shaw, vacant since the 1980s, or the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, whose last incarnation was an office building and food court.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese historic buildings are all getting a new lease on life, thanks to a growing interest in renovating and repurposing historically and architecturally interesting buildings, rather than tearing them down. In the language of planners and architects, they're being transformed for adaptive reuse. From the outside, they'll look the same. But inside, the warehouse will be transformed into residential and retail space, the bakery will be loft-style offices, and the Old Post Office will become a hotel.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile preserving historic buildings isn't always the answer, it's a strategy that's helping entice residents and businesses back to the city. Joining me to explore the role of reuse in revitalizing D.C. is Roger Lewis. He is professor emeritus in the School of Architecture at the University of Maryland. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. Roger, good to see you.
MR. ROGER LEWISNice to be here again.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. Rebecca Miller, thank you for joining us.
MS. REBECCA MILLERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What's the best example of an old or historic building that's been brought back to life that you've noticed? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Roger, what exactly is adaptive reuse and what are some examples that already exist in the District?
LEWISWell, you've named a couple that I think are worth remembering. Adaptive reuse generally applies to the process of taking an existing building, which may or not be historically designated as a landmark building, but taking a building that is usually decades old and finding -- adapting it for new use. Actually, I think it's a great term, because it explains itself fairly well. Most of these buildings that are repurposed adaptively, do entail retrofitting them to some extent, bringing them up to code, modifying often the infrastructure of the building, that is, not the skeleton of the building, but the systems of the building -- the electrical, mechanical, plumbing and so forth.
LEWISSo adaptive reuse can be applied to anything. I mean you could take a 7-11 Store and adaptively reuse it. So that's my -- that would be my definition.
NNAMDIRebecca Miller, the D.C. Preservation League began in 1971 as a group called, and I remember this, Don't Tear It Down, that saved the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue from the wrecking ball. Now, Donald Trump is giving that building new life as a luxury hotel. How does it exemplify the idea of repurposing historic structures? And what are some of the other D.C. buildings your group has fought to preserve over the years?
MILLERWell, as you mentioned, the "It" in 1971 was the Old Post Office building. And there's been many other "Its" over the last 40-some-odd years. Having the post office come and be revitalized again is something that's really important for Washington. And I think it shows that you can really reuse a building. The Old Post Office has been up for demolition no less than four times. It was just too expensive to tear down. And so I think people can't really imagine the Washington skyline or Pennsylvania Avenue without that building. So to have a new use that actually has no adverse effect on the building is really an exciting prospect for our organization.
NNAMDIRoger, what are the physical considerations that influence the decision about whether a building can be adapted for a new use?
LEWISLots of variables. Lots of variables. Of course, the first thing is the actual geometry form and condition of the building -- structural condition and condition of systems, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. There are some uses that are more easily injected into an old building than others. For example, if you're going to -- if you're looking to take a building like the Old Post Office building and adaptively reuse it -- those who aren't familiar with the building, the building is a late 19th century building, Richardsonian in its style. It's a huge -- it has a huge atrium in the middle of it.
LEWISSo it would be a very difficult building to -- for economic reasons -- to convert into something where you wouldn't want a gigantic atrium in the middle. That -- on the other hand, it's very well suited to being a hotel. Or for that matter, it was essentially a place of -- a retail center. That was easily done. There are I think probably, from a development point of view, the first thing that any developer looks at or a public agency, is the condition of the building, vis-à-vis it's structural and infrastructural systems, and where is it located and what is the financial feasibility of doing the retrofit or doing the adaptive reuse?
LEWISNot all adaptive reuses save money, by the way. They cost as much to adaptive reuse as to build anew.
NNAMDIYeah, we'll get to your house in a little while. But keep going.
LEWISWell the only other thing -- the other thing to add to this is, of course, it's really a very important sustainability strategy, saving and reusing buildings. Because, after all, already invested in an existing building is a lot of money, time, effort, energy, materials. If you can save those and find another purpose for the building, you've made a giant step -- taken a giant step forward in saving energy and presumably saving other things. So I think that it's not a simple analysis.
LEWISI think, if I look at the FBI building, which we aren't prone to think of as an historic building, but there's a building -- if I had -- if they asked me to do a study, how to adaptively reuse the FBI building, where there's as much underground as there is aboveground in terms of square footage, that would be a very challenging analysis.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing adapting old buildings for new uses with Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of Architecture at the University of Maryland. He also writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. And Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. Questions or comments? 800-433-8850. What building would you like to see renovated for a new use? You can also send us email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIRebecca, your group has specific criteria for what you'd like to see preserved and even which parts of a building are historically significant and should not be altered. How do you evaluate a building or, for that matter, a block?
MILLERWell, our specific organization doesn't have specific guidelines. We actually follow what's called the Secretary of Interior standards for rehabilitation. So you have the Secretary of Interior's for that. But also you have criteria for designation, which is put forth by the D.C. government under the Historic Preservation Act. And it is evaluated by what's called a Historic Preservation Review Board, which is a nine-member board that's appointed by the mayor. And so they make the determination.
MILLEROur organization is the primary advocate, so we do a lot of documentation and identification of properties that could be deemed historic and we file those nominations. We also work with community groups to file nominations. And they are communities that also offer educational programs and outreach and other.
NNAMDIAny examples of buildings?
MILLERWell, we did work on the Wonder Bread building, the Warner Theater. Before the Preservation Act was enacted, we actually filed lawsuits to save the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Most people don't know that that was up for demolition. The Downtown Historic District, which is of course Washington's primary shopping district, and was at the turn of the 20th century. So it's a really important area.
NNAMDIHow about the Franklin School?
MILLERThe Franklin School was an early effort, in the early 1970s, and again in the 1990s, when the exterior was rehabilitated. That particular building is very special, because it has an interior designation, which is very rare. We only have about 16 of those in the District.
NNAMDIAnd what's happening with that building?
MILLERCurrently, there was an RFP that had been put out by the Deputy Mayor's Office. And it has been awarded to a -- it's a joint public-private venture with a developer and it's actually looking to be some kind of artists space or gallery space. Because of the interior restrictions of the school, there's kind of limited opportunity for a lot of redevelopment on the inside. So, it could be used...
NNAMDITalk about another building that maybe lost its physical integrity, the Waffle Shop across from Ford's Theater.
MILLEROh, the Waffle Shop, yes. Art Modern, many people may have eaten there. It was actually serving Chinese food for a while.
NNAMDIYep, I remember that.
MILLERYes. And it was designated, several years ago, about 2007, and the interior was designated as well -- the serpentine countertop, the sloped ceiling, the bar stools, those were all character-defining features of that particular building. But due to the economic downturn and also weather was an issue -- we had many snow storms in the time period that really leaked in it. And of course, in that era, one of the things that our HPRB chairman said, materials from that era were not meant to really hold up. So a lot of them had degraded significantly. The Waffle Shop will be recreated and rebuilt. There is an agreement in place to do that. We're just looking for a location to do that in.
NNAMDIRoger, who decides what's worth saving and what's not? And what tends to be the most popular architectural period for preserving in our area?
LEWISWell, the decision, as Rebecca has pointed out, some of it has to do with of course the desire on the part of the public and the people in the field to first identify and then take steps to preserve what are considered historic structures. Which can be -- which can include landscapes, by the way, as well as buildings. It can include neighborhoods. You know, we have Georgetown is a historically designated neighborhood, as are parts of Alexandria. I think that it's a combination of things, going back to my points earlier about, what is it we have to evaluate?
LEWISFor me, as an architect, what do we look at when we advise a client that something is worth saving and adaptively reusing? So it's a combination of things. What is the historic value? What are the historic assets, in particular, because not everything in a property is necessarily salvageable or worth saving. And then what are the potential uses that might be worth considering? And what is it going to cost to achieve this? And by the way, being historically designated doesn't always save the day. We saw with the Third Church, the Christian Science Church...
LEWIS...at 16th and I Street. We saw something that was landmarked. There were many people who wanted to save it because it was -- it did represent a certain kind of architecture of an era -- a 20th century architectural movement. It -- ultimately the church got demolished because, in that case, after all the contentious debate about what to do with it, it was decided that it just wasn't worth saving. That's a judgment call. And I really want to underscore that. Ultimately -- when it comes to what do you save, what do you demolish -- it's a judgment call very largely. It's not something that you can use a formula and come up with an answer automatically.
MILLERWell, in that particular case, it was actually -- it went through a process -- under the Preservation Law, there's the designation process and the review process. But there's also what's called Mayor's Agent for historic preservation, who makes that kind of final determination. And the Mayor's Agent found in that case that it was an economic hardship on the congregation in order to keep that church. And so economic hardship is something that -- it doesn't happen often, because we have so much speculative development. But because they were a nonprofit, it was a whole different scenario. But what I wanted to point out...
MILLER...just some numbers quickly, with regards to how many -- how much is actually designated in Washington. It's about 19 percent of the city. There's about 57 historic districts, 28 or so are neighborhood districts, and more than 25,000 protected resources. So it's a significant number here in Washington.
NNAMDIWell, Michael in Baltimore, Md. is interested in what may be one in particular. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHello. This is Michael. I am calling because I'm a member of the Passive House Alliance -- in fact, I'm the president of the Passive House Alliance of the United States. And we -- our practitioners engage in very, very energy efficient design including historic retrofits. I have been working on buildings that achieve 90 percent energy savings for heating and cooling.
MICHAELNow, it's easier with less historic buildings but it's doable with historic buildings. The problem is it can be very difficult to achieve a high level of historic preservation and a high level of energy efficiency at the same time. So I think there's a really interesting, dynamic and important conversation with historic preservation as to energy conservation folks. Because we all believe that these buildings need to be preserved, and preserved so they're durable, healthy, safe and efficient because our environment demands it. And our social and artistic fabric of our culture demands it so it's...
NNAMDIIndeed, Michael. That's a topic that we will be moving onto next, as a matter of fact, in this discussion, green building sustainability, that kind of thing. So thank you very much. However, I had intended to speak first with Margaret in Washington, D.C. who, Rachel, who I think has a specific question for you about a specific area. Or -- well, you go ahead and tell it yourself, Margaret.
MARGARETHi. So I was wondering if there -- if your guests know of any plans for the DuPont Down Under. I'm not sure -- what that was, whether it was a train area or -- I know years ago they tried to open it with some retail. And it was just not well done, which is incredibly disappointing because it seemed like kind of a cool space. I'm wondering if there's any discussion about...
NNAMDIA really intriguing space, is it not, Rebecca?
MILLERIt is an intriguing space. So much so that we actually did a tour of it yesterday afternoon and...
NNAMDISee there, Margaret, they're thinking about it.
MILLERWe are thinking about it. And I think it's a very interesting space. It was actually built in 1949. It was a trolley turnaround. It was made for the opportunity to relieve traffic congestion around DuPont Circle. It closed in the 1960s when the trolley system seized to exist. And it was reopened in 1996 for a short period as a food court.
MILLERThere is a group, the DuPont Under Ground, that is looking to do something with that particular area. There have been several proposals from an art gallery to some kind of boutique hotel. It needs some work. I mean, it needs some light and some air and some systems and all kinds of things that you would need to put into a vacant space that has been vacant for a very long time.
NNAMDIBut I said intriguing because so many people seem to just want to go under there and just hang out for a while, Roger.
LEWISWell, I'm pretty familiar with the project. Julian Hunt is a colleague and friend of mine who has led that effort. And I've been down there. It is very challenging. I mean, one -- I will tell you that one of the big -- you mentioned -- Rebecca mentioned the problem of ventilation and illumination and access and meeting codes and egress requirements. I mean, it's a very -- it is a technically very challenging space to repurpose. It's still being worked on. I don't know where it stand right now but I do know what the obstacles are to getting it to where it might want to be.
NNAMDIWell, Margaret, keep hope alive. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on adapting old buildings for new uses. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. What do you know about an attempt to adapt or reuse a building that turned out badly, 800-433-8850? Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Roger Lewis about adapting old buildings for new uses. He is the professor emeritus in the school of architecture at the University of Maryland and the writer of the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's joined in studio by Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Roger, what are the economics of reusing an existing building, which you mentioned earlier? Is it cheaper to renovate an old building than to build a new one from scratch?
LEWISIt varies with each circumstance. I mean, I think that in many circumstances it is more economical to keep the old building and renovate it and repurpose it. But if you're doing a major overhaul, I mean, if you're gutting a building and essentially taking it down to the bones, you can easily spend as much money doing that as you would demolishing the building and building anew.
LEWISBecause building a new building from the ground up, there's some efficiencies in doing that. And it's particularly challenging if you're dealing with an historic building that has a lot of fragility. Because there are many historic structures where there's a certain amount of protection that has to go on. Or you've got an old building that's full of asbestos. And just getting the place, making it nontoxic before you can even start work is very expensive.
LEWISAgain, there's no one rule -- there's no one-size-fits-all in this. But I think that in every project it's one of the things that the professionals who are doing it look at from the very beginning, which is, you know, what is the cost of what we're going to do? Will this pencil out when we do the pro forma analysis and evaluate its cost and revenue.
NNAMDIWhen you remodeled your own house in 1990 it cost you more than you initially paid for the house.
LEWISThat's right. Well, that's -- and if you -- that's absolutely -- there's no question, if you wait long enough you're going to spend more remodeling or renovating or adaptively reusing then the initial cost.
NNAMDIWell, part of that is inflation though.
LEWISWell, yeah. I mean, you can only -- this only makes sense -- and the analyses always have to be in current dollars. I mean, you just have to always do -- use current dollars.
NNAMDIRebecca, green buildings and sustainability are important goals today, as our caller Michael was pointing out. How do they influence the decision about whether to adapt an old building?
MILLERWell, there's a lot of technology that's out there now that allows you to adapt an historic building for something new. We do a lot of workshops for homeowners to talk about not only about sustainability, but energy efficiency in their home. So I'd love it if Michael would like to call me at my office, because we do offer those programs to homeowners in order to, you know, lower their bills and things like that. Because there are ways that you can alter a building and not really deter from its historic character. And so I think that there are ways to do it and I think technology continues to progress. We'll find bigger and better ways to do those things.
NNAMDIHow does -- go ahead, Roger.
LEWISWell, I was going to give an example. For example, the windows -- windows are one of the short circuits energy wise in buildings. And of course there are lots of window systems out there you can go by. Some of them are very expensive. In fact, the technology of windows, of glass, technology has changed them. And there are ways however to change the windows, let us say, in an historic structure and maintain still the -- if you will, the aesthetic character of that structure.
LEWISYou could also change the windows and completely destroy the aesthetic character of the structure. So this -- we get into some really important aesthetic and technical judgment here. And there are -- I will say right off the bat there's certainly -- there are some architects who are very good at this. But there are a lot of architects who I would question hiring because they might not make the right choices about replacing windows, let's see, in a 19th century building where the window and its detail and how it fits in the wall and so forth is critical to the appearance of that building and the integrity of the historic character.
NNAMDIHow do zoning and the potential build out of a property affect the decision about whether to tear down and rebuild or to renovate?
MILLERWell, first off you have -- you determine whether or not you're an historic building. We have that assessment which is whether you're in an historic district or you're an individual landmark here in Washington. They work with the Historic Preservation office and there are zoning variances. You can go to BZA. There are PUDs, all these kinds of different things. I think Roger can probably explain PUDs a little better than I can.
MILLERBut it's that kind of determination and it goes through a public process. That's one of the benefits of the historic preservation process is it is open to the public. There are public hearings where the neighbors or concerned citizens can come and state their opposition or be proponents for a project.
NNAMDIHere is James in Washington, D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESYeah, well, that's really interesting follow-up. Thanks, Kojo. It was interesting follow-up because I'm in Mount Pleasant which is an historic district. So that means the front of the house has to kind of maintain the integrity of the historic nature of the area. But the back doesn't. And so what the guy next door to me -- he's bought the house, kicked everyone out and is going to put in stainless steel stairways. He wants to go back 30', add another floor, roof deck, a fire pit in the back.
JAMESAnd I just -- I mean, you can't just -- good luck trying to figure out what the process is. It's just kind of frustrating because you think that -- I mean, can he really do this? And then what he said was, well when I do it then you can do it.
MILLERWell, it depends on whether or not he's getting permits or not. There's a tremendous amount of unpermitted work in the District of Columbia. We only have two enforcement officers for all of those historic districts that I mentioned earlier. And one of the things that your neighbor would do, if he was going to go the legal route, would be to file for an application and go to the Historic Preservation Review Board. And each neighborhood has design guidelines based on the character-defining features of their neighborhood. If they're...
JAMESIf they're not?
MILLEROh well, in the back if it can be seen from a public thoroughfare, yes, it could be something that the Historic Preservation really...
JAMESIt really can't be seen. So he can do whatever he wants.
MILLERWell, he would still need to have it permitted though. And he would still work with the Historic Preservation Office on that aspect.
JAMESI mean, one of the beauties of living in D.C. is that you -- I mean, one of the awful things and one of the great things about living in D.C. is that you can get away with a lot and you don't have to do a lot. And so he can -- I mean, stainless steel circular staircases right next to my bathroom. I mean, that's going to be allowed. And that's what's happening. I mean...
NNAMDIWell, do you know if your neighbor has permits to do all of this?
JAMESWell no, not yet. But that's -- I mean, he's -- I'm mean, how...
NNAMDIBecause there's a sterling example of a house, I think it was in Shepherd Park way up near 16th Street, the entire house had to be removed because it was built in violation of city regulations.
LEWISWell, Rebecca put her finger on it. Every area is different. And the notion is that the characteristics have to be identified. One of the things that make a place historic, a neighborhood, a streetscape -- and there are places where the back of buildings are not protected. That is where it is -- you can add a 21st century if you -- I'm not going to get into the (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWell, we're about to get into it in a second, but go ahead.
LEWIS...but where things can be changed. There is always ongoing debate in the historic preservation world about to what extent the interior elements of a building are contributing to the historic character of a building. And there are different views on this. I mean, I think that -- in Alexandria -- there are places in Alexandria where you absolutely cannot change anything on the exterior because, as Rebecca pointed out, you can see the whole building, depending on where you stand. But there are other places where if you can't see it, they're not worrying about what you do. So this is again a place-by-place analysis.
NNAMDIAnd James, thank you for your call. Good luck to you. But you take us to the issue of one of the buzzwords in this field, facadism, the act of preserving the façade of a building or row of building while changing the insides. Rebecca, how would you compare say the reuse of the 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue block near the World Bank and the Penn quarter block that includes the Spy Museum?
MILLERWell, I mean, I think it's almost comparing apples to oranges at this point with -- redline row, as it's referred to, is -- around Pennsylvania Avenue is a very early preservation project. I think preservation was very new here in Washington. And it unfortunately doesn't look all that great. I mean, it's a very -- you have a row of buildings that it's only set back a very small amount. Only the facades are kept and you have a very large scale building behind it.
MILLERWith regards to the buildings in the 1800 block of F Street, which is known as the Latroit (sp?) block, also where people would recognize the Spy Museum as being. It's a fairly successful redevelopment. There's a new addition on the back. Actually several of the buildings are interconnected inside. The new addition however on the back actually looks like it's a different building. So it can be very successful.
MILLERAnd I think that that's a great block if people are looking for historic examples where you have the patent office building. You can see the Martin Luther King Library. You see the addition to the Masonic Temple right there by the Gallup Organization and the former bank that's now a hotel. It's a really wonderful 360 of historic preservation. And it gives you a lot of different time periods as well.
NNAMDIBecause when you're riding down the street, you don't notice how much it has changed unless you look really, really closely, Roger.
LEWISWell, I think it's -- I love the comment about redline row. I wrote about that. I think mediocre is too good a word, in my opinion, for what they did. Part of the problem is the building that was put up behind them is unbelievably mediocre.
LEWISBut in addition to facadism, you know, there's sort of mass-ism. There've been a number of buildings in the city, the army and navy, where the buildings -- and we're going through this now with the MLK Library -- where an existing building, it's not -- the building's being saved but it's being extruded vertically, some things being added to the top.
LEWISAgain, the issue arises, you know, what is the impact? What is the value of or the lack of value or the loss of value in taking a building that is a complete building, particularly a building that's historic. Because they tended to have been designed -- those early 20th century buildings and late 19th century buildings, they were designed in a way that they have a kind of base-middle-top organization. And then to be asked to put three or four more stories on top of a building that's already got its top is a real aesthetic design challenge. And it's been handled with different degrees of success.
LEWISSo once again, we're -- you know, there are many variables here as to what it is, when you adaptively reuse, expand, modify as to how it's done, when it should be done or when it should not be done.
NNAMDIOn to Terry in Washington, D.C. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRYSure. Thank you for taking my comment and question. I think the Historical Preservation Office doesn't really practice racial equity. And here's what I mean by that. You're in a community like Barry Farm, and I know people often associate the current Barry Farm with the ghetto. But if you know the history about -- it was one of the first black communities -- well, actually a Freedman's community, one of the first in the country amongst the 78th.
TERRYBut you -- and it sits next to Anacostia. And there's been all this effort to preserve Anacostia to this sort of historical locale. But you take a community like Barry Farm that was originally African American as one of the oldest communities, and there's nothing that has been preserved there. And there's no steps or efforts by the Historical Preservation Office to preserve it. And it goes to the point. Washington, D.C. is a city...
NNAMDIBut Terry, Terry, I want to talk about specific buildings. Are you -- are there specific buildings at Barry Farm that you feel should -- that are not being protected?
TERRYThat's just it. I mean, the buildings that were of historical architecturally value were demolished through neglect. And this is happening because the city is very much interested in developing east of the river. And to preserve or to even consider Barry Farm -- not talking about the public buildings. I'm talking about the larger Barry Farm, get in away of...
NNAMDIAll right. Well, allow me to ask Rebecca Miller if the D.C. Preservation league has ever taken a look at Barry Farm.
MILLERWe actually are looking at it as we speak actually. There -- I should explain that the Historic Preservation Office is very small. Within the D.C. Office of Planning, I did mention how large the historic property number is here in the district as well. And the D.C. Preservation League is also a small organization. We're a staff of three that rely on volunteer engagement. And so it's really helpful when communities bring projects to us. So if there's a neighborhood historic district that they're interested in pursuing, the neighborhood needs to assist us in doing that.
MILLERThere have been two historic districts that have been turned down in the last ten years, both Brookland and Chevy Chase most recently. And that was because there was opposition to that. And so you really need people from within the communities to come and tell us and tell the Historic Preservation Office what's important to them.
NNAMDIThank you very much. And, Terry, as you heard, the D.C. Preservation League is looking at Barry Farm, but it raises the question, Roger, to what extent does the interest in reuse come from a desire to maintain authenticity and character?
LEWISWell, that's a tricky question. I mean, I think a lot of the -- I think people have different motives. I think that the developers are in business to make money. And the nonprofit development entities, they're -- while they're not in business to make a profit, they still have to look very much, very closely at the economics of development. I think what Rebecca has pointed out is -- that gets into the history of this whole thing -- our culture has changed.
LEWISThere was a period in our society when historic preservation, the words didn't even exist. I went to school in the '60s. I'd never heard the word historic preservation. They tore down Pennsylvania Station in New York without giving it a second thought. Wouldn't even be considered today. You know, the whole Southwest urban renewal experience in Washington in the '50s and '60s would not happen today. They took down an entire neighborhood of, arguably, historic residential structures.
LEWISAnd I -- this relates to the Barry Farm argument as well. There are -- one of the problems is there are -- in almost all cases there's a financial or economic dimension to this. And if one is going to preserve something, there's usually cost to doing that. And the question is who bears the cost, how do you finance it? And I think that's always an issue. I think it's going to come up again and again in the 21st century because we are now in an era in this -- certainly in this society where people -- the majority of the population believe in the notion that there are things worth preserving.
LEWISWe should not demolish everything just because it's old. But there was a period when that was not the mantra. When if it -- there was almost a belief that well, once it's old enough, take it down. The future is where it's at. Let's get rid of all the old stuff. We don't -- we're not thinking like that anymore.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We will try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. When is it better to just tear down a building, rather than try to remodel it for new use? 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to weigh in on this discussion on adapting old buildings for new uses. We're talking with Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. And Roger Lewis, professor emeritus in the school of architecture at the University of Maryland, and the author of the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Carol. "On 7th Street," says Carol, "I believe at H Street Northwest, there was a restaurant club/bar. Upstairs, I understand, there was an office reportedly used by Clara Barton in her efforts to reunite Civil War families with soldiers or soldiers' remains. I am now told that there's a Starbucks in that building. If so, what happened to Ms. Barton's offices, furniture and papers, do you know?" Rebecca?
MILLERI do. There's actually…
NNAMDII thought you would.
MILLER…a Friends of Clara Barton House. And it's at 7th and E Street…
MILLER…Northwest. And it is her former offices. The building was going to be redeveloped, but then they did discover these letters. It's a GSA-owned space. And the community is actually working with the General Services Administration to open that space up to the public for tours and also put a museum on the bottom floor.
NNAMDIAnd this email we got from Ann, Roger. "The Hill Center and Sixth and I Historic Synagogue are good examples of buildings adapted for events and community space. How difficult is it to provide leadership for those transformations?" And I will say, again, and what does zoning have to do with all of this?
LEWISWell, the leadership, I mean, most of the time I think leadership springs from organizations like Rebecca's, from local citizens, people who are, in some way, stakeholders, if you will, in the -- in both the property and the history of an area. The -- coming back to the zoning issue, I think it's very important to recognize that there can be a conflict between what a city or a county policy is for a given area expressed through the zoning ordinance. It says on such-and-such a site you can have a density of such-and-such, and you can go up 100 feet.
LEWISIf there's sitting there, a building that's two stories high, that's occupied by some merchants, there can be great pressure, great motivation, I should say, on the part of the owner of that real estate to want to tear down the two-story building and build a 6, 8, 10-story building. And that's -- we have that situation in certain areas of Washington, D.C., where -- I was just saying to Rebecca, I'm looking across the street at a one-story strip building on a site here on Connecticut that's probably zoned for three or four times that density and that height.
LEWISAnd at some point the owner may want to tear it down. Now, I don't think it's an historic building, but it could have been. This might have been, as the shop-and-park building on Connecticut at Cleveland Park. That was saved, even though it's at a metro station and is clearly not the highest and best use from a real estate perspective.
MILLERAnd I think it depends on the developer, as well. Whichever developer you're dealing with has a different motivation, as well. There are developers in Washington who are looking -- they like the historic character of the buildings. That's why they develop in certain areas. There are others who don't -- they may appreciate historic character, but they're looking to make a bigger bang for their buck. And so -- and get more density and things like that.
MILLERAnd as I mentioned earlier, downtown has been -- the downtown development zone has all been up-zoned. So every -- there's a lot of transfer of development rights going on and there's a lot of historic buildings in that particular area. So developers have to be very careful when they purchase something, that they've really talked to the Historic Preservation Office and to the D.C. Preservation League about what their goals are before they get too engulfed in their project.
NNAMDIWell, let's hear from Ben, in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENThank you for taking my call. So I guess my question is what are some of the problems, particular to D.C., in bringing old buildings up to code? As an example, in San Francisco, how do you make an old building more earthquake resistant to meet to current code? Well, what they did was that they sprayed an acrylic along the inside of the brick wall so that when wall shakes, it doesn't shake as a bunch of individual bricks.
BENIt now shakes as one complete wall. And it upped the Richter scale rating significantly. I wonder are there problems like that, you know, maybe due to the softness of the soil or something that's particular to D.C. that makes repurposing these buildings more difficult.
LEWISWell, D.C. is not so difficult as San Francisco. Or -- I've spent a lot of time in St. Petersburg, Russia, where there are 3,000 palaces which they want to save. It's, you know, it's a world monument. The worst soil conditions you can imagine. They have all kinds of technical problems just keeping these buildings, just to stabilize them, never mind adaptively reusing them.
LEWISJust stabilizing certain structures in certain locations is very, very challenging. D.C., we're in pretty good shape. I mean, we are blessed to not have to spend a whole lot of capital, just on stabilization.
NNAMDIRebecca, the old Wonder Bread bakery in my old neighborhood, now your neighborhood, of Shaw is being renovated to hold boutique office space. Tell us about that project.
MILLERWonder Bread, it's -- the interesting story is it's actually called the Dorsch's White Cross Bakery, but…
NNAMDIYou're kidding. I never knew that.
MILLERI'm not kidding. Yes. And because there is a Wonder Bread sign on the outside, everybody identifies it as the Wonder Bread factory.
NNAMDII did for 20 years when I lived there.
MILLERYes, absolutely. There is actually -- was a Wonder Bread factory further up Georgia Avenue. And that's the one that everybody remembers the smell from and everything.
NNAMDIOf course, yeah.
MILLERAnd that was a very big area for bakery warehouses. But the Wonder Bread factory, we started work on that in 2011. And we were looking for a location to have our 40th anniversary. And we loved that neighborhood. I loved that neighborhood. I live there. And it's a really wonderful industrial building, which we have very few of Washington. This wasn't a really -- people who lived here worked for the government or former Army workers, things like that. Not a lot of industry here. Most of that was also closer to the railroad tracks. So some of these bakeries are very important.
MILLERThat particular building has been adaptively reused. There's actually an addition on top. There are 20,000 square foot floor plates. WeWork, which is a co-working environment, actually has the third and fourth floor of Wonder Bread. And they are still seeking tenants for the first and second floor. But it's a really nice, wide-open space that really offers to a lot of different opportunities. But it could be a restaurant, it could be any number of things because of its size.
NNAMDIWhat's happening with the old Hecht Company warehouse, on New York Avenue, in D.C.?
MILLERSame developer as the Wonder Bread factory. That is becoming high-end apartment buildings. Not -- they're calling it the Hecht Warehouse District. And they've actually -- they've built a new parking garage out there that can actually be converted into apartments in the future. There had been discussions between the developer and Harriet Tregoning when she was the director of the Office of Planning, who, of course, did not like cars.
MILLERAnd did not want a parking garage. So this was a way for it to be -- that will be adaptively reused in the future, once things kind of spread that way because that part of the city hasn't been completely -- it's not even really emerging at this point. So that development is a really -- it's a catalyst for that area. But it will be…
NNAMDIBecause when you're pulling into Union Station on a train and you look over there for the last 20 years, you say, "What the heck's going on with this old building here?" So you're likely to see a change sometime in the near future. Roger, we've been talking about adapting buildings, but D.C. is also adapting the 11th Street Bridge, turning it into a public park. What will that project look like?
LEWISWell, that's a fascinating project. I was just at a meeting two days ago about the 11th Street Bridge project. And I should disclose that I'm on the design oversight committee for that bridge. You remember we had a -- we did a show with Scott Kratz…
LEWIS…a couple of months ago on this. This is going -- this is repurposing, essentially, parts of an old piece of infrastructure. The 11th Street Bridge has been replaced by new bridges adjacent to it. They're going to take the old deck down, but they're going to leave the supports, the piers in the river and the abutments, presumably. And the notion is to re-deck it, put a new deck on it. It doesn't have to carry traffic so it can be much more freely designed. And the notion is to build a public park on this bridge.
LEWISThe purpose of this -- there are a number of goals. But the dominate goals are to reconnect the city across the Anacostia River. The Anacostia River has been a separator, rather than a seam of connection. It's to create a place, a destination for people from Wards 7 and 8 and from Ward 6 and anywhere else in the city, to come together, enjoy fabulous views.
LEWISIt'll be an economic catalyst. I mean, it's -- I do think it's a great idea. It's going to be sort of our somewhat diminished version of the Hi Line in New York. And it's -- stay tuned. You'll be hearing more and more about it.
NNAMDIOnto Jack, in Washington, D.C., who'd like to know your thoughts on a building we've talked about a lot. Jack, your turn.
JACKOh, thanks, Kojo. Love this show. And I have to confess, I'm an architect's son and I live up here at Columbia Heights. And today's conversation has taken some very interesting turns. And so -- but I grew -- when I first came to D.C. I was living down by Union Station, working on the Hill before Union Station was redeveloped. And I was hoping your panel could remind what went through? Because I have memories of it being boarded up. And I was living down on 4th and F at that time. And the neighborhood was rather scary.
JACKSo -- and then also, too, the second part of my question is we've got the GALA Theatre up here in Columbia Heights, as well as the PNC Bank across the street, where they want to put in a TGI Friday. And so our neighborhood's been sort of up in arms, but I don't think there's a lot we can do in terms of dictating to businesses and developers what they can and cannot do.
NNAMDIWell, that's the kind of neighborhood that neighborhood now is. But first Union Station. We may not be able to get 14th Street, but Roger, Union Station?
LEWISWell, I'm not sure what -- it seems to me he's referring to a time which is way back when. I mean, Union Station, although it's gone through a couple of…
NNAMDIWas always functioning.
LEWIS…makeovers, yeah, but the -- Union Station, of course, is -- that whole area is transformed. I mean, the first thing we should point out is the entire area has transformed radically and it's still a work in progress. There's a very ambitious project that's likely to take a decade and a half or two to create what's been called Burnham Place Development, new air rights development over the tracks, rebuilding the tracks and the platforms, creating a whole new entrance from H Street.
LEWISOne day we're going to have a trolley line operating there. So, I mean, Union Station appears to be forever a work in progress. I mean, I think it's a fabulous building…
NNAMDIBecause there's so much there there.
MILLERThere is. And they are actually pursuing a preservation plan as we speak. We -- the D.C. Preservation, like, it's part of a coalition of groups from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the Committee of 100, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, working with the State Historic Preservation Office and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation on the building and also making sure that somehow Burnham Place is incorporated with Union Station, so that the Station doesn't just become a shopping mall. That it still maintains its historic function as a transportation facility, which we think is very important for that.
NNAMDIGot a couple of minutes left, but what role is this recent wave of adaptive reuse playing in revitalizing the District of Columbia and making it such a coveted place to live and work?
MILLERWell, I think it's -- we call it, in preservation, a sense of place. You can walk down the street and have a variety of buildings that you view, low-scale buildings offer the opportunity for you to have a more -- you can identify with them better. When I go to New York -- I didn't grow up in New York. I grew up in lower-scale areas. But I can't identify with a 65-story building. That's just not something that I'm able to relate to. But I relate to buildings that are here.
MILLERI mean, our buildings only go up to 11 or 12 stories, depending on your floor-to-ceiling. So I think that it gives people that opportunity. With the protections here, also, not only are you -- people don't like to necessarily be told what to do with their homes, but you do have those protections that your neighbors can't necessarily do that either. So when the gentleman was talking about somebody building in his backyard, you know, there's some give and take that goes on with historic preservation. But I think people want to be in new and exciting areas. And Washington really offers that.
LEWISI would only add that I think that one of the things that makes a city like Washington attractive to people -- in contrast, let's say, to my hometown of Houston, Texas…
NNAMDII thought you'd bring that up.
LEWISI was just there. And I was reminded of something. In Washington there are these historic neighborhoods where these -- this historic fabric. Preserving that fabric is, in a sense, an economic investment. It's an economic -- it is driven by both economic and if -- I think cultural motivations, they go together. It's not either/or, it's both ends.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis is an architect. He's the author of the "Shaping The City" column, in the Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, always a pleasure.
LEWISLikewise. Thank you.
NNAMDIRebecca Miller is executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. Rebecca Miller, thank you so much for joining us.
MILLERThank you for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.