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.