- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

To copy or counter the past? That’s the architectural dilemma posed by adding a new structure to a historic landmark.

In Washington, the typical design solution is to mimic and play it safe. Old architecture is simply replicated, as in the newly expanded Kennedy-Warren on Connecticut Avenue, or extrapolated, as in the eight-story addition atop the Homer Building at 13th and G streets NW. The resulting juxtapositions are respectful of history, but often dull.

So it’s refreshing to look up at the gleaming metal curve rising above the stores in the old Sears building on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Tenleytown. This four-story residential addition is treated as a complementary contrast to the retail building rather than a facsimile of it. The design pits aluminum against concrete, curve against straight line in a sophisticated opposition carried out with confidence and skill.

The talent behind the renovation and expansion is Shalom Baranes Associates Architects, the same firm that added on to the Homer Building and many other historic structures downtown. All this experience seems to have emboldened Mr. Baranes and lead designer Robert Sponseller to push their condominium addition, called Cityline at Tenley, in an edgier direction.

Their design works so well in part because it adjoins equally robust, sculptural architecture. In fact, the project might be titled “modernism then and now.” The original building is among Washington’s most significant examples of mid-20th-century commercial architecture. Sears, Roebuck and Co. constructed the urban flagship store in 1942 with vehicular ramps leading to a rooftop parking deck.

The store’s uniqueness, however, has long been a challenge for those seeking to recycle it. “We spent a year trying to find ways to reuse the building,” says Richard Lake of Roadside Development.

Roadside purchased the Sears building in 2000, several months after Hechinger had vacated the premises, and eventually signed on Best Buy and the Container Store to lease the retail space. Construction of the 204-unit condominium block began in 2003 with the approval of citizens groups and the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.

“The community was receptive to the idea of higher density on top of the Metro stop here and adding new uses to the building,” Mr. Lake says of the decision to construct the condos.

One of the architectural challenges, he says, was figuring out a way to expand without disrupting the retail space with additional structure. The solution was to reinforce the existing columns and extend them above the rooftop deck to support the condos.

By raising the addition nine feet above the roof, the architects further distinguished new from old both structurally and visually. The separation also allowed them to create a garage under the residential building and preserve the ramps along Albemarle Street and River Road for access. (The ramp leading from Wisconsin Avenue was simply planted with grasses to create a garden.)

In essence, the low-rise Sears block now serves as a plinth to its newly completed upper stories. So as not to overwhelm the historic architecture, the condos are set back a respectable distance from the face of the old building.

“Instead of taking the approach of the typical perimeter block scheme where the building is pushed to the edge, we nipped and tucked around the perimeter to contrast new and old,” Mr. Sponseller says.

That meant the courtyard at the center of the condos — the hole in the doughnut — couldn’t be too big. However, that benefited the design, too, resulting in a more intimate garden space.

Another smart move was to clad the addition in aluminum panels. The metallic architecture succeeds as both contrast and complement. It is obviously different from the concrete of the old Sears while sympathetic to its streamlined modernism.

Moreover, the sun-reflective aluminum skin creates the impression that the four stories of condos are lightweight. The metal-paneled walls and balconies convey an industrial kit-of-parts look, almost as if the building were assembled from an Erector Set and easily could be extended or dismantled one day.

Changes in color and profile also help reduce the addition’s apparent size. This variation isn’t merely compositional but follows a functional logic. Generally, living rooms are sheathed in silver corrugated panels, while bedrooms and bathrooms are clad in dark gray, smooth sections.

All this metal could have turned out to resemble a big tin can, but Mr. Sponseller carefully detailed the windows and walls to add scale and depth. On the corrugated facades, bands of metal demarcate the apartment floors and reinforce the horizontal lines of the crisply outlined windows. The smooth, darker metal sections, however, lack some of this articulation and appear too stark in places.

The design also keeps the bigger urban picture in mind. At the busy intersection of River Road and Wisconsin Avenue, the addition bends to direct the eye around the corner and ameliorate the long sawtooth of concrete above the storefronts. Paired windows in the new curve emphasize its horizontal sweep. Glassy corners and balconies relieve the shiny expanse to convey transparency and depth.

At the corner of Albemarle Street, the addition is recessed 80 feet, allowing the rounded “prow” over the huge store window of the old Sears to shine. On River Road, it is notched in deference to neighboring Eldbrooke Methodist Church, a 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival-style landmark.

As part of their charge to preserve the old Sears, the architects refurbished the storefronts and streamlined canopies and added new stainless-steel signage. A stair tower above the Albemarle Street facade was recycled into a light well over the residential lobby in a space once used by store employees.

Inside the lobby, the architecture becomes more glamorous with travertine floors, Venetian plaster walls, Barcelona chairs and other classic modern furnishings. At one end, a zinc-paneled wall is fitted with a glass-and-steel gas fireplace.

Upstairs in the condos — all but 10 are sold — kitchens open to living spaces, which are slightly splayed in the curved wing. Because the building occupies one of the highest points in the District, many units offer impressive panoramic views.

They are but some of the rewards of this urbane ensemble. By designing an addition both risky and respectful, Baranes Associates raises the bar for other architects trying to weave contemporary design into the city’s historic fabric.

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