Corbeled Corners

300 block of Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington DC – 2014

These inset brick corners can be found all over the older parts of DC. They are especially characteristic of Capitol Hill, where they define bay windows on hundreds of rowhouses. I’m always fascinated by repeating, localized details like that. Why? What was so special about this bit of design that builders decided to use it over and over? Why here and nowhere else?

It isn’t an especially practical detail — it requires several additional steps in the laying of the masonry, and it cuts off the inside corners on the interior. It is a wonderful aesthetic addition, however. It gives the bay window a distinct profile, with a visually slender base and a heavier cap above. This unexpected twist of massing is a common theme of the Queen Anne style and the High Victorian era.

None of that answers the “why”, though. My past research efforts have come up empty, and like much of builder vernacular design, I might never have a more solid answer than the one that applies to many other styles: one builder did it, another one copied it, and it kept on going from there.

A Beautiful Block

200 14th Street NE, Washington DC – 2021

DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is noted for its astonishing charm and beauty. This block is typical for the area, unremarkable even — yet it offers some fundamental lessons on how to build a beautiful residential street.

The two-story Italianate rowhouses are identical, meaning they were put up all at once by a single developer. This means they are neatly aligned. The group at right, which probably came a decade or two later than their neighbors, follows the same cue. Together they form a true street wall.

The houses offer a variety of small, simple design cues. A sheet metal parapet cap generates several horizontal shadow lines, while below that, corbeled brick brackets add complexity and depth. Each window is sheltered by a generous arched hood. The windows are narrow but tall, and their pattern across the facades breaks the walls down into small, human-scaled elements. The doors fit neatly into this pattern.

Individual owners have added spice to the block with a variety of colors, no two the same. Additions and subtractions over the years have given each rowhouse its own personality. Security gates, lamps, house numbers, window replacements, door colors — all add a patina of age and character.

The house are compact. They take up only the room that’s necessary. There is no wasted space, no giant patches of lawn that nobody uses. The front yards are valuable in their smallness, and burst with plantings. Each one is a tiny little haven; together they make a gentle barrier between the sidewalk and the houses.

The street is sheltered by several mature shade trees. The importance of street trees to the beauty of a street cannot be overstated. It is hard for a street bereft of all nature to be beautiful.

The street itself is broad but not huge. Street parking on both sides provides some traffic calming. The parked cars help form a physical and psychological barrier between the sidewalk and the street, as well as reducing the size of the travel lanes — the only effective way to make cars voluntarily slow down.

It’s an altogether welcoming, charming space. And almost every bit of it could be built today, if we only chose to.

70s Corporate Modern

This may be the single worst style of architecture ever conceived by mankind.

Airport Plaza One, Crystal City, Arlington Virginia – 2021

1970s corporate modernism reduced architecture to the most simple forms imaginable, sucking away even the slightest semblance of life. People want to rip on Brutalism, but Brutalism has depth. It has shadow, articulation, discernible mass. Things move in and out; there’s room for playfulness.

But this? The wall has become this unimaginably flat surface. Like a desert. An arid wasteland of a façade, utterly bereft of joy. These kind of buildings become simply their own shape: a rectangle, an octagon, whatever. They become so slick that they forget that there’s any other purpose in life than to be slick.

Architects tried to sell those mirrored windows to the public as space-enhancing elements: they would reflect their surroundings and thus magnify the beauty of their setting. In truth, most people don’t even notice them; photographers like them because they give a ghastly reflection of the surrounding world — a grotesque distortion that looks artistic in a photo, but man, you wouldn’t want to live there.

Industrial Gothic

Ca. 1880s townhouse, N Street NW, Washington DC 2021

This house features some of my favorite brickwork in the District. It’s one of a trio of rowhouses, with differentiated massing but all featuring the same crisp, angular brick patterns.

The powerful emphasis on steps, right angles, and zig-zag patterns sets it apart from its Queen Anne and Italianate contemporaries which cover many blocks of the central city. Given the age and the style, it was likely influenced by a movement brewing in nearby Philadelphia, where Frank Furness was fusing Gothic styles with visual elements of the Industrial Revolution.

Furness’s most obvious nods to the steam powered technology that dominated his time came in the forms of stumpy, piston-like columns, and gear-shaped filigreed brackets. This house contains nothing so blatant, but there’s something mechanical about all those horizontal lines, the stair-stepped reliefs, the sawtooth corners, the barely-there mortar joints. It’s trying to be modern, long before anybody had quite figured out what “modern” might mean.

And yet, what really captures me is that it’s beautiful. This machine-like creation absolutely sings. The rich interplay of shadow and light, recession and projection, the imperfections of age, all add up to something that delights the eye and enchants the soul. I often come back to this house when pondering the question of what makes something beautiful — any grand theory of beauty has to account for this challenging, peculiar house.

Close inspection

Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 2021

I am fascinated by zooming in on architectural details — getting so close that they reveal their secrets, their most basic forms. Builders of old would include detail that would never be fully understood by the unaided eye. It adds a depth to a building — a subconscious sense that closer inspection might be rewarded, or a reflexive understanding that a building is special. Here, the process worked in reverse — faced with what was likely a leaking roof trim cap, a hundred feet up in the air where nobody would ever see it up close, some beleaguered workman said ‘heck with it’ and slathered the entire thing in caulk.

Imperial decline

Italianate townhouse, 5th Street NW, Washington DC, 2021

Many great stories are steeped in the mythos of decline — civilizations that have past their peak of glory, lands where ancient ways have been lost. Lord of the Rings, a popular mythology for our time, constantly waxes on the forgotten knowledge of the past, the “spent blood” of the great race of men, the departure of the fair elves, the decline of great cities and strongholds.

I think there is something to that mythos — the notion that we are living in a time when greater glories lie behind than what is ahead. Not that the idea is necessarily true, but that it is a concept that resonates.

One need look no further than this handsome DC townhouse, whose wood cornice brackets and dentals are rotting away. Show it to an American and we will lament: it’s a shame we can’t make keep up things this beautiful anymore, let alone make new ones! We struggle collectively with the structures handed down to us from America’s golden architectural ages. Decay of this sort evokes a sadness — perhaps born of civic wisdom, perhaps of indulgent self-pity. The wisdom recognizes a thing of beauty is being lost. The self-pity forgets that we do still live in an age of wonders.

The disposable bits

Grace Church Episcopal, New York City, 2021

The apse of New York’s Grace Church peaks through a gap in the complex’s other buildings on 4th Avenue. The rusty lamps caught my eye — the sign of some ancient pieces of infrastructure, 1940s uplighting perhaps, long abandoned in place. This sort of forgotten hardware speaks of a building’s age — of how it was already old when it underwent modernization, and that modernization is now itself aged enough to be a historic relic. Ornamental stone and stained glass will eventually be cleaned and restored to like new. Practical additions like these, however, will eventually be removed. They carry the weight of history through their state of deterioration, the obsolescence they have acquired over time, and in this way might be more alive with age than the timeless Gothic finials and pointed arches.

The romance of imperfection

St. Regester Street, Baltimore, 2021

A Baltimore alley-street on an early morning. Is there anything more romantic, more evocative, more American?

Such narrow streets are rare outside of the big colonial era East Coast cities. This one lacks the picturesque perfection of an Elfreth’s Alley or a cobblestone Beacon Hill street. But the messiness of power lines and ad hoc development tell their own story. From a vintage Federal style townhouse to a contemporary rooftop addition clad in black metal, this space has seen lives and more lives. Cycles of prosperity, decline, improvisation and renewal can be read in the repurposed shopfronts, the Formstone cladding in the distance, the plastered over party wall where a building once adjoined its neighbor. There’s been no grand unifying master plan to homogenize it or bring it up to a corporate standard. It just is what it is: a jumble of styles, a tangle of powerlines, an access drive, a parking lot, a back yard, a front yard, a functional space where someone works, a cozy slice that someone calls home.