The Myth of the Apple Store

Georgetown is subject to its share of popular but wrong myths. None is more prevalent–or wrong–as the myth that resident opposition to a Metro stop is why there’s no station here. It persists as a myth because it comports with what a lot of people think about Georgetowners (and in turn reinforces those opinions).

Well, GM has noticed another myth is starting to take hold: that the oppressive design review of the Old Georgetown Board is why it took the Apple Store two years to open in Georgetown.

Like many myths, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of it. Namely, it is true that it took Apple a long time to get design approval for the new building. But first of all, it didn’t take two years, it took 19 months. The first design was submitted for review in September 2007 and the final design was approved in March 2009. But, yes, a year and a half is rather a long time to get design approval.

But whose fault was the delay?

This is the design Apple first submitted:

Look familiar? It should, it’s almost exactly the same as the final design. But the Old Georgetown Board rejected this first design, expressing concern over the wall of unbroken windows that would be presented to the street. The focus was on scale, not necessarily style. The board simply thought a wall of glass with no articulation (i.e., window frames, transoms, etc.) was too inconsistent with the buildings around it. They even encouraged Apple to submit a modern design, just one that addressed this concern.

It wasn’t a flat out no, it was simply a request to make some tweaks to the design. Maybe you disagree with that request, but so long as you want any sort of design review of construction in a historic neighborhood, you’ve got to accept that you might not always agree with the design reviewers. (And if you think Georgetown would be better off with no design review, check out this monstrosity in Glover Park and ask whether you’d like to see that in Georgetown).

Besides, this request didn’t need to add materially to the length of the review process. Apple could have come back next month with some options to appease the OGB. But they didn’t.

They waited.

And waited.

It wasn’t until nine months later that Apple came back with new designs. And rather than make a few tweaks, they came back with an ice cube:

Now, you may think that this would look great in Georgetown. But you’re being completely unreasonable if you think a design this radical should have been quickly approved. In GM’s opinion, something like this could possible work on a side street or down by the waterfront, but not here.

But more importantly, this design failed utterly to address the OGB’s concerns over the scale and unvariegated nature of the glass wall.

So what did Apple do next?

It waited.

And waited.

It wasn’t until December of 2008 that Apple returned with a new design:

GM can see the appeal of the ice cube, but this is just tacky. Again, Apple seemed to not actually be listening to the OGB. The design continued to include an unbroken wall of windows, but now it had a monolithic stone wall with a giant ad for Apple stamped in the middle of it.

Finally, though, Apple started to get the message; so they promptly came back in January 2008 with yet another revised design:

The thing is, though, that this design was much like the very first one, but didn’t address the OGB’s concerns over a wall of windows lacking any articulation. The OGB once again rejected the design, telling Apple the same thing it did 16 months earlier: add some damn frames to the glass wall.

And three months later they returned with the final design that was approved.

Photo by Bennet Joan Darder.

The final design is basically the first design with the tweaks that the OGB originally requested before Apple went off the deep end. The OGB was consistent throughout the process, and at any point along the way Apple could have simply listened to the comments and addressed them like they ultimately did. The delay was almost entirely of Apple’s own making.

Does this process result in exciting or even particularly interesting architecture? Absolutely not. The Apple store is a bland pastiche of vaguely historical elements which, at best, just blends into the background.

But the myth of the Apple store does not stand for the proposition that the process results in bland architecture (which it mostly does). What it does stand for is the assertion that it’s too difficult to do business in Georgetown because of the historical preservation laws as enforced by the OGB. It’s only too difficult when, like Apple, you’re the one being too difficult.



Filed under Preservation

14 responses to “The Myth of the Apple Store

  1. Great post, Topher, thanks for the overview.

  2. Q St Neighbor

    I can’t comment on the length of time the process took, but I am really disappointed with the outcome. In this case the OGB forced Apple to put up a boring and cluttered storefront (it looks to me like a bad 1950s remuddling), when they could have had something that was interesting without being outrageous. Apple’s middle proposals are absurd, but their first and next-to-last would not have been shocking or out of place on Wisconsin. A glass storefront with the second story as it is now would not have dominated the overall streetview, but would have added some interest for those walking past. Definitely a missed opportunity.

  3. RNM

    While there may be a bit of mythology at play with the Apple store, it is a reality that getting permits for work be it commercial or residential is more difficult than it needs to be. Reasonable review say for architecture impact on neighbors is fine, but using the power of office to either favor (say like Anthony Lanier’s developments) or reject like far too many to list is more geared toward cronyism and social engineering. Try getting a permit to replace non original windows with like kind (even removing ugly triple track storm windows along the way) and rejection is the general response, that and repair them. (Hint, just kick out all the windows break them up beyond all ability to repair and offer to put up CDX plywood or to go ahead and install the like kind replacements). I look forward to the historic landmark designation being given to a chain link fence…it is on its way.

    On the perception of the denizens of Georgetown as reinforced by the Metro myth…based on recent threads on this blog…while the metro issue may be a myth sounds like the perception is reality.

  4. Tom

    Typical review board crap that is everywhere. Granted one may argue that it is worse in Georgetown but boards just like the OGB are all over the place. They delay, offer goofy suggestions, and generally impede forward progress. Yes, verify architectural and engineering designs to ensure safety but if the glass were a problem would Apple be using so much of it all over the world? Either way I hope that someday all these review boards will go the way of their closest relative…the dodo.

  5. CHSC

    Love the “ice cube.” Too bad.

  6. Michael Radosevich

    If we did not have the Board, Georgetown would look like Farragut Square or Penn Quarter or any number of soulless, suburban wastelands.

    If you do not respect history, don’t live or do business in Georgetown. There are plenty of other places -virtually anywhere else in the Washington metro area – that will help you pursue your worship of the Almighty Dollar.

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  8. Kate Whitmore

    “If we did not have the Board, Georgetown would look like Farragut Square or Penn Quarter or any number of soulless, suburban wastelands.”

    Hear, hear! Apple will not be at this site forever, believe it or not.

  9. Michael

    How is it Calvin Klein Underwear got away with their storefront, which is really similar to the original Apple design, and mabye worse considering (i) how it extends onto the sidewalk and (ii) its window displays are very, er, in your face?

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  12. MGT

    Could not agree more with Michael Radosevich. OGB’s mission is to preserve historical architecture, and that history is what makes Gtown unique. Plenty of other areas right here in DC where you can see big buildings, or all-glass fronts, or the latest starchitect vanity project.

    With liquor licenses available again, the main obstacle to doing business here is landlords over-valuing property, demanding higher rents than the market can bear, and/or getting tangled up for years when OGB blocks their “redevelopment” plans. Cry me a river.

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