The architectural unity of the city's smallest quadrant derives from an ambitious 1950s urban redevelopment plan. Although the developers and architects undertook similar projects in other American cities, such as Hyde Park in Chicago, none has surpassed the comprehensiveness of the Southwest Washington Redevelopment Area. With its new high-rise and town house residential clusters, shopping centers, office structures, parks, and cultural facilities, the Southwest became the most complete post–World War II urban renewal community in the nation.
Redevelopment was tumultuous, however, for building owners challenged the legality of the undertaking. In the famous Supreme Court decision of 1954 on the case of Bermanv. Parkerupholding the 1945 D.C. Redevelopment Act, Justice William O. Douglas found it “within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.” The legality of the Redevelopment Land Agency to condemn land occupied by deteriorated housing was thus confirmed, but the effort suffered in the eyes of the public because extended delays between demolition and new construction left entire blocks empty for years.
Located at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the Southwest Quadrant had attracted some settlement even before the federal city was founded. Recognizing the area's strategic advantages, Pierre Charles L'Enfant designated its southernmost point as Greenleaf Point or Washington Arsenal, and it became the site of a fort, arsenal, and penitentiary. Now, as Fort Leslie J. McNair (see SW14), the spot is best known as the site of the National Defense University. In the wake of L'Enfant's plan, speculators were quick to construct houses for residents of the new national capital. One of these ventures, Wheat Row on 4th Street, dating from 1794–1795, remains among the oldest surviving row houses in the District. Other early development centered on the river: wharves and maritime facilities were constructed, and it also became the center of fishing activity.
In the early nineteenth century, the Southwest evolved more slowly than other neighborhoods contiguous to the Capitol and the President's House, resulting in less desirable housing. The construction of the Washington City Canal along today's Constitution Avenue and then southward on a diagonal path from South Capitol Street to Greenleaf Point isolated much of the area from the rest of the city, and port facilities along this portion of the Potomac River were hampered because of unpredictable water depths. Construction of the railroad tracks in the post-World War II era and the Southwest Expressway further removed “the Island,” as it became known, from the fortunes of the District.
By the mid-twentieth century, the area generally was considered a slum. Politicians and planners proposed several solutions, including rehabilitating many of the largely nineteenth-century brick row houses. Urban visionaries, however, preferred that cities conform to modern planning and architectural practices. Planner Harland Bartholomew of Saint Louis and architects Louis Justement and Chloethiel Woodard Smith of Washington provided a scheme reflecting the times: a plan calling for superblocks, created by closing many streets; starkly functional architecture; and planned commercial, cultural, and employment centers. These elements promised to reverse the stampede of middle-class families to the burgeoning suburbs and to rebuild the tax base.
The D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency commissioned William Zeckendorf of Webb and Knapp in New York to prepare a detailed plan. Together with staff architect I. M. Pei and architect Harry Weese of Chicago, Zeckendorf presented a showcase of twentieth-century architecture and planning. The major elements of the Southwest Washington Redevelopment plan consisted of the 10th Street Mall, a north-south corridor linking the federal buildings just south of the Mall with the Maine Avenue waterfront and the residential blocks to the south. Lining the 10th Street Mall were to be federal government buildings, hotels, restaurants, shops, and other tourist facilities. The proposed cultural complex that later became the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was sited to the east and could have connected to the 10th Street Mall by a cross-axial promenade.
Clusters of high-rise apartment houses and related town houses, an innovative concept at the time, were sited loosely throughout the quadrant in order to provide light, air, and splendid views to the occupants. The town houses were arranged around residential squares of parking and green spaces, following London's example of private parks. Portions of old Federal style row houses were incorporated into the clusters. Neither urban nor suburban, the high-rise and town house clusters were hybrids. Unlike many speculative suburban developments, the architectural design and landscape standards for the clusters were exceedingly high. The result was a Southwest Quadrant style of development distinctive in the District. The shopping center, churches, schools, public library, and parks filled the interstices.
Much of Zeckendorf's vision was fulfilled, even though the financial collapse of Webb and Knapp cut short his participation in the redevelopment plan. The major variance from the plan, the loss of the cultural center to Foggy Bottom, resulted in an eerie, lifeless 10th Street Mall. Larger social problems developed as well when affluent residents of the new housing found themselves near public housing hugging the quadrant's eastern side. Rather than luring middle-class families, the Southwest drew single adults and childless couples, creating an aura of transiency, while the wholesale clearing of older housing displaced hundreds of low-income families. In the process, strong community ties that had developed over nearly a century and a half were severed.
An ambitious experiment, the redevelopment of the Southwest is still a study in contrasts. Although predominantly modern and sleek, a suggestion of the old informality remains in the waterfront fish market, along with a few graceful old buildings.
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