More than 50 years ago, Southwest D.C. underwent a massive transformation, representing the largest urban renewal project in U.S. history. The project covered 113 blocks, more than 450 acres and led to the relocation of more than 20,000 residents. Amid new development in the area, the question is how should the mid-century modern architecture of the original renewal effort be protected and preserved. On Oct. 4, the D.C. Preservation League and DOCOMOMO held “Southwest DC: Renewal at Risk,” a walking tour of the key projects from the 1950s and ’60s. Eric Jenkins, an architect, associate professor at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning and River Park resident, led the two-hour tour of the area, which he described like the “Lower East Side up until the 1950s.” Jenkins said roughly 25 to 30 percent of the mostly working-class people came back to Southwest after the massive renewal effort.
In his AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., G. Martin Moeller Jr. writes that while many urban renewal projects have “come to symbolize indiscriminate destruction of neighborhoods (squalid though they may have been) in favor of drab, soulless superblocks … much of the redevelopment in the Southwest quadrant was of unusually high quality, avoiding the pitfalls that plagued many such projects elsewhere. Notwithstanding the sensitive social issues surrounding the genesis of such endeavors, several of the housing developments in Southwest are among the best works of large-scale urban architecture of their era.”
These are the very projects the tour focused on: Tiber Island and Carrollsburg Square by Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon, Harbour Square, Capitol Park/Potomac Place by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, River Park by Charles Goodman, the Waterfront mall development, Marina View west and Arena Stage. Throughout the tour we saw efforts to preserve the old amid the new. Residents at Smith’s Harbour Square are working on an oral history to document the complex. I.M Pei’s apartment buildings (originally called Town Center Plaza, then Marina View and now The View at Waterfront) are being renovated inside and preserved as much as possible on the outside, with the architect Phillip Esocoff trying to maintain Pei’s clean, glass facade while updating the windows for better efficiency. New residential buildings are planned for the surface parking areas near Pei’s existing buildings. Next door, Smith’s unsuccessful Waterside Mall has been reduced to dirt, awaiting its own revitalization.
In Smith’s Capitol Park, we saw the results of new development. Monument Realty built two massive condominium towers where the ground breaking park by Dan Kiley, the dean of American landscape architects, used to exist as a bridge between Smith’s Capitol Park Apartments (now Potomac Place Tower) and the community’s townhomes. Smith building, with its signature terra cotta honeycomb panels, has been designated as a landmark by the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board and now being renovated and turned into condos.
Harry Weese’s Arena Stage, originally constructed in 1961, is undergoing major change as well.
As Southwest continues to age and the area changes to meet the needs of the current residents, questions about what should be preserved and how it should be preserved will continue to be debated among residents, preservationists, city officials and developers. While these issues will not be solved today, I encourage you to take a walk through Southwest on one of the these beautiful fall days to see these and other mid-century modern gems in a unique modernist haven right in our backyard.