Downtown West represents the expansion after World War II of the downtown commercial core west of 16th Street into an area of low-rise buildings. The topography of the area is more varied than its architectural form suggests. The land rises north from Pennsylvania Avenue, reaching a high point at I Street, then falls toward K Street, where it flattens out before rising again north of M Street. West of 23rd Street, the land flattens before reaching Rock Creek Park.
In the early years of the capital city, commercial activity centered on the juncture of the Washington City Canal and Pennsylvania Avenue near 7th Street. From that beginning, the downtown spread north to G Street and west where, by the early twentieth century, it met the financial district along 15th Street. Commercial development continued north to Scott Circle and west to 16th Street. By the late 1930s, it had trickled into Farragut Square. While the downtown was moving westward, residential activity continued its spread at the edges of the District of Columbia.
Following a construction hiatus during the Second World War, pent-up demand for new office accommodations and the readiness of investors to respond released a wave of new construction by the late 1940s. The federal government's increased need to lease office space further fueled the redevelopment of Downtown West. Over the next four decades, the former residential streets were transformed into an almost solidly commercial enclave, redeveloped in a scattershot fashion wherever a site had been assembled along with the necessary planning and zoning approvals. By the 1980s, few nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings survived in the area enclosed within Rock Creek Park, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Dupont Circle, in spite of its historic preservation and special zoning regulations. After Downtown West had been virtually filled, development pressed back into the old central business district, Downtown East, and erupted around new Metro stops throughout the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland.
Early modernism in commercial building design came in the form of modernized classicism with most of its three-dimensional details shorn off. These buildings remained symmetrical, showing the vestigial definition of base, shaft, and entablature. As late as 1941, the Longfellow Building on Connecticut Avenue at M Street appeared revolutionary, with its purely functional ribbon windows and sunshade balconies. Designed by Swiss-born William Lescaze, who also designed the famous Pennsylvania Savings Fund Society Building in Philadelphia, the Longfellow Building has been ruthlessly disfigured by developers, who frosted it with a pink Postmodern glaze.
As simplified classicism fell out of favor in the 1950s, the glass box made its presence felt in the expanding downtown. The seeming resemblance to the majestic glass and steel slabs of famed architect Mies van der Rohe gave these buildings the aura of fashion. As street after street was filled with these superficial versions of serious modern architecture, but rising only to the city's height limit, “K Street Corridor” took on a pejorative meaning, signifying dull streets defined by spare, speculative, glass-enclosed office buildings.
In the 1970s, architects attempted to break out of this predictable building formula and to attract office tenants thirsting for an alternative. Building corners were scooped out or slashed. Retail shopping facilities at the ground floor and in indoor atriums were expanded. In a few instances, only the facades of older buildings survived as frontis-pieces to new office blocks.
In the 1980s, alternative treatments for new office buildings included towers affixed to building corners, pediments above doors, rusticated stone veneers, new colors, and novel textures. Red brick was used in greater profusion, as were polished stone strips reminiscent of Streamline Moderne buildings of the 1930s and 1940s. Office lobbies blossomed into grand public spaces. For much of Downtown West, these changes came too late to affect the predominant character of this commercial area, which became a ghost town in the evenings. Planning incentives were initiated in an attempt to encourage mixed use in the former light-industrial area called the “West End,” which became a haven for hotels and apartment houses interspersed with office blocks. The Golden Triangle formed by Connecticut Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, and K Street became an entertainment core of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. In the blocks along Connecticut Avenue and to its immediate west, fashionable shops appeal to the professional people who work in nearby offices.
More older buildings survive on Connecticut Avenue than on many other streets in Downtown West. Plantings of trees set 19th Street apart from its surroundings. In the West End, the mixed uses, hotels, and residential condo-miniums create forms that differentiate the area from blocks to the east. Occasional sculptural displays are token amenities amid the glass boxes. A few schools and building facades survive to recall the former ethnic character and industrial activities in the area, and except for those located on the fringe of Downtown West, no churches survive.
Downtown West exhibits both the best and the worst of a large area developed during a limited period. The blocks of buildings offer a consistency of scale, treatment, and use, which critics see as a characterless mass of glass boxes, one block of them virtually indistinguishable from any other. Nevertheless, the concentration of similar uses makes for a lively area during office hours and one that offers the efficiency of location.
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