This week in the Georgetown Current, Georgetowner and former ANC Commissioner Ray Kukulski offered his thoughts on the appropriateness of modern architecture in Georgetown. He raises several interesting points, but the premise of his views is based upon a mistaken view on the role of preservation and its governing principles.
Kukulski asks whether buildings like the one above, which Eastbanc has proposed for the intersection of Pennsylvania and M St., are appropriate for a historic neighborhood like Georgetown. He writes:
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever asked our community as a whole if Georgetown should retain its historic character. I’m doing so now…Do Georgetowners want new buildings to blend in with the historic fabric of our village, or is modern architecture with materials that do not match the traditional color palette or design of our late-19th- or early-20th-century buildings acceptable? Do international visitors come to immerse themselves in history or to see modern architecture they could see at home?
The Old Georgetown Act was not passed in order to keep the architecture of Georgetown in a style that Georgetowners want. It was passed by the United States Congress on the belief that historic Georgetown is a national treasure and should have almost unique federal protection. While it sometimes acts like one, Georgetown is not a homeowners association. The opinions of Georgetowners are immaterial.
In practice, the Old Georgetown Board and its parent body the Commission of Fine Arts occasionally listen to the opinions of neighbors when deciding to approve or reject a proposed project. But listening to Georgetowners is not in its mandate. Its mandate is to preserve the historic character of Georgetown.
So why not listen to what Georgetowners think would help preserve historic Georgetown? Because most Georgetowners only understand the part of preservation involving old buildings. Everyone easily understands that it’s in the interest of historic preservation that we don’t knock down a 100 year old home wily-nily. And most understand that allowing a dramatic change to the facade of an old building also could compromise the historic character of the neighborhood.
But the part most people start to struggle with is what to do with brand new buildings. Many (maybe even most) want new buildings to look just like the old ones. This is contrary to governing principles of historic preservation. The idea is that if you allow a new structure to imitate an old building, you are diluting the value of the old building. Taken to the extreme you have Disneyland, where everything is pleasing and nothing is authentic.
The proposed buildings Kukulski cited definitely don’t try to mimic old buildings. And that’s why the Old Georgetown Board has viewed them largely favorably (although it has yet to approve any of them) (also, the proposal for the condo at the Exxon next to the Key Bridge is dead). Personally GM doesn’t care for the Eastbanc proposal above. It’s just too blah. But GM has no illusions that the laws should enforce his aesthetic preferences in the name of historic preservation.
In GM’s opinion it is a reflection on Americans’ insecurities that we believe that the proximity of a boldly modern building will negate the historic value of an old building. Take a trip to a grand European city like Vienna and you’ll see how seamlessly a new building can blend with an ancient one without compromising the integrity of either of them:
So by all means, weigh in on whether you like the proposed buildings or not. But don’t expect the federal authorities tasked with following historic preservation guidelines to care.