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Refusing to be Typecast

Hartman-Cox Architects brings an elegant, contemporary perspective to traditional settings.
By Kim A. O'Connell

When the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery reopened in 2006 after a six-year restoration, visitors were welcomed into one of the most historic and rarefied architectural spaces in Washington, DC. On the outside, the museum – now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture – is beautifully cohesive, the neoclassical Doric porticoes on its central pavilion perfectly balanced by white marble wings. Inside, a delightful mélange of architectural styles is evidence of the handful of prominent architects, including Robert Mills, Thomas U. Walter and Adolf Cluss, who worked on the building between 1836 and the 1880s.

To that august list of architects, one must now add the name of the Washington-based firm in charge of the restoration – Hartman-Cox Architects. To honor the rich and complex history of the building, which once housed the U.S. Patent Office, while updating the space so that it worked as a contemporary museum, the architects tackled a complex series of interventions. Mills and Walter had spoken similar but distinct classical languages of refined vaults and columns, while Cluss (who was hired to rebuild certain sections after an 1877 fire) created riotously decorated Victorian galleries. The 20th century saw the addition of unimaginative office spaces and even the threat of demolition, before the Smithsonian Institution acquired the building.

Hartman-Cox was tasked with master planning, design and construction documents for the restoration, working with more than a dozen consulting firms. Specifically, the architects oversaw the restoration of the stone exteriors, replacement of the roof and skylights, installation of updated mechanical, electrical and other systems, and renovation and expansion of gallery spaces. "Every wing in the building is different," says Mary Kay Lanzillotta, FAIA, one of the firm's four partners. "At the Patent Office building and elsewhere, we work hard to be respectful of the original design wherever we have to make interventions….One of the best things we can do for the environment is to keep old buildings in active use. It preserves the materials, it keeps them vital, it preserves the infrastructure."

Hartman-Cox has worked in a number of similarly challenging environments throughout its 43-year existence. The firm's resume ranges from private residences to major office structures, from museums to university buildings, and from meticulous historic restorations to sensitive new additions. Its portfolio may be diverse, but the firm's work is always – as the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC asserts – "urbane, polished, and distinguished."

Commercial Pursuits
On a July morning, Warren Cox, FAIA, Graham Davidson, FAIA, and Lee Becker, FAIA, join Lanzillotta around a square table in the firm's headquarters, located in a charming townhouse in Washington's historic Georgetown neighborhood. The firm's four partners have an easy rapport as they go over their long history, which began when Warren Cox and George Hartman founded the firm in 1965. Although they had been trained as modernist architects (Cox at Yale, Hartman at Princeton), the stately grandeur of Washington's monumental core had taught them about something else: the importance of context. Both Cox and Hartman (the latter of whom retired several years ago) grew up in the Washington area and specifically chose to found their practice there as opposed to, say, New York City.

"Washington is a special city with its low-rise character, the major avenues, the Federal Triangle, Georgetown and so on," says Cox, the firm's senior partner. "It's a different lifestyle and different character. It does change the way you look at the city and your commitment to the city."

Early projects favored residences and modest commercial buildings that evinced a more austere, modern style than the firm's later work. One of the projects that put Hartman-Cox on a larger architectural map was the firm's addition to the Folger Shakespeare Library, a 1930s building in Washington, DC, that is stripped-down classical on the exterior and Tudor on the interior. The firm designed a new reading room that is both serenely classical and yet contemporary and relevant – an "abstract echo of classicism…a kind of dialogue between classical and modern elements," as architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in a review.

Over time, office buildings came to form a major sector of the firm's practice and offered the architects ample opportunities to find creative solutions to complex design problems, which often meant mixing elements of old and new. In the 1970s, the firm designed the National Permanent Building in Washington, DC, notable for the metal exterior ductwork on its façade. Although it is not very obvious, the building's scale, massing and roofline take their cues from the far more elaborate Old Executive Office Building located around the corner in a way that "eschews copy-book phoniness and remains thoroughly of the present," as the AIA Guide avers.

Another important project for the firm was the design of a blocky office building located at 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., about halfway between the White House and the Capitol. Although the firm calls the structure a "background building," meaning that it was not designed to draw attention to itself on such an iconic avenue, Hartman-Cox put an exceptional amount of thought into the project, whose primary material – limestone – responds to the Federal Triangle buildings across the avenue. On the avenue elevation, the building presents one rectangular, symmetrical façade, but other elevations feature asymmetrical, stepped- down façades that complement surrounding buildings. Most notably, the firm retained the existing façades of five existing historic structures, creating a streetscape motif that has become uniquely associated with Washington, DC.

Far more assertive is the firm's design for Market Square, completed in 1990, which is actually two mirror-image neoclassical buildings that curve around the Navy Memorial across Pennsylvania Avenue from the John Russell Pope-designed National Archives building (which the firm also recently restored). Although the arched windows and columns evince a traditional flavor, the buildings are actually quite modern, mixing elegant penthouse residences on the top four floors, which are stepped back; glass-and-aluminum curtain walls that indicate the office spaces in the middle stories; and ground level retail with large, inviting awnings. Most dramatic is the fact that the buildings are sited on an axis that allows for a direct view of the former Patent Office building – a dramatic gallery of some of the firm's best work.

"For most of our commercial work, we were hired not only because we have experience in getting building designs approved [working with review boards concerned with historic preservation, zoning, and other matters], but also because developers often wanted a distinct identity for the building," Becker says. "Often the identity that was most saleable and marketable in the 1980s and 1990s was something that related very strongly to its context."

More recently, Hartman-Cox designed a large addition to the famed Kennedy-Warren apartment building (See Period Homes, July 2006, Palladio winner, page 11) in northwest Washington, DC, a project that included an interior restoration. The original architect, Joseph Younger, had designed the exquisite Art Deco structure in 1930, but only the north section of the design was realized. Using Younger's original drawings, which were discovered in the 1980s, Hartman-Cox constructed a new south wing that fit the original Deco exterior but had more modern apartment layouts within. The firm jumped through numerous hoops imposed by the DC government (including the Zoning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts) to realize the scheme, but the completed building today is as graceful as the original.

Other recent commercial buildings in Washington, DC, include a major addition to and renovation of the Bowen Building, a 1920s structure near the U.S. Treasury, which created 225,000 sq.ft. of modern office space while complying with the city's Historic Preservation Review Board; Lincoln Square, a large office and retail complex that incorporates existing historic facades and uses massing, window openings, and building materials that mimic the character of the local historic district; and a new building at 505 9th Street, a multifaceted structure that preserves the historic streetscape with complementary building heights, materials and setbacks.

"For 505 9th Street, we broke up the façade into a series of pieces to relate in scale to the neighborhood buildings," Davidson explains. "The building has a lot of character, which ranges all the way from the glass curtain wall to the heavy masonry, even though it's all based on the same module. Each section has its own identity, yet they are cohesive."

Creating Community
In Tuscaloosa, AL, which is about as "deep South" as one can get and a world apart from the classical core of Washington, DC, sits the University of Alabama Law School, designed by the firm of modernist master Edward Durell Stone. There, Stone's firm crafted a minimalist horizontal structure that was consciously different from the traditional styles in which the core campus had been built. Although Stone's firm is more famous for such works as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, it cast a wide net, building unexpected works in unexpected places. The same could be said for Hartman-Cox. In 2006, the university opened a new addition to the law school, designed by the firm, which effortlessly extends Stone's design idiom while creating a state-of-the-art learning facility.

Although the law school addition represents something of a change in design aesthetic from what the firm has been doing on college campuses, it does not represent a change in the firm's design approach or in its basic understanding of the needs of a university community. Hartman-Cox has designed, expanded and renovated numerous buildings on college campuses, developing particular expertise early on in the Collegiate Gothic style. Three important projects since the early 1990s include the design of a new library at the University of Connecticut in Hartford, the law school building at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and sensitive additions to "Old Physics," now Mary Gates Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA, and to the Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, NC.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, there was no question in the minds of the firm's principals that their work on three important buildings there—additions to Monroe Hall and Rouss Hall for the McIntire School of Commerce, and the new Special Collections Library—would seamlessly complement Thomas Jefferson's historic Academic Quadrangle. Yet the projects are not slavish carbon copies, but nuanced designs that respond both to Jefferson's original vision and also to that of later architects McKim, Mead, & White, who designed buildings at the south end of the famous Lawn. The Special Collections Library in particular is a prominent and important new building, yet its classical design elements are far more subtle and elegant than other so-called "Jeffersonian" buildings that have been built in and around Charlottesville in recent years.

"For the exterior of these historic campuses, there is usually a strong desire to keep them as cohesive as possible, sometimes to a fault, sometimes not," Becker says. "Most universities today want flexible interior spaces that foster interaction and are more accommodating. We've found that the easiest and most flexible styles to use on campuses are the neoclassical and Collegiate Gothic. Things that are decidedly modern and self-conscious tend to be a little more reductive and unforgiving."

Among other current projects, the firm has now turned its attention to a new, 1,500-bed detention center in downtown Denver, CO. Sited on a prominent campus of government buildings, the building posed a significant design challenge for Hartman-Cox: How does one design an important public building in a way that contributes to the city's civic character while accurately reflecting its difficult community function? Jails are essentially windowless structures, but instead of creating the prototypical hulking structure sited on the outskirts of a city, the architects envisioned the classical, grand massing of buildings like Pope's original National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Yet the firm deliberately left off classical ornamentation, since the detention center is obviously not, as Becker says, a "destination building" (for most people).

"The Denver Detention Center fits within the realm of the commercial buildings we've discussed because it needed to fit well within its context and form a major urban space in a downtown historic district," Becker says, "but it also had to have its own unique identity."

Several years ago, Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey wrote of an emerging "Washington School" of architecture, at the center of which he firmly placed Hartman-Cox Architects. "A hallmark of the firm," Forgey wrote, "has been to adapt the devices of traditional urbanism to the needs of the contemporary city." Indeed, the firm has done this not only in its home city of Washington, DC, but across the country as well. Other current projects include an addition to the historic American Pharmacists Association headquarters in Washington, DC; an addition to and renovation of the Morehead-Cain Foundation and Planetarium at the University of North Carolina; and a courtyard enclosure at Washington University.

When asked if he ever worries about being typecast as a traditionalist, Warren Cox is emphatic in his response. "If we're going to be typecast," he says, "we would like to be typecast as very good, very thoughtful and very responsive architects, as architects who eschew the immediately fashionable for the longer range validity of the project. And that means, as we see it, being able to successfully design in a variety of appropriate styles." TB

 

 

 
 

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