- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Whitman, a 185-unit condominium building at 910 M St. NW, just west of the new Washington Convention Center, is a refreshing antidote to the rash of glass-sheathed structures rising in the city. This quirky edifice, designed by the District firm Esocoff and Associates Architects for local developer Faison and Associates, is anything but coolly transparent.

Walking by the big, ornamented building, you can’t help but smile at its playfulness. Flared cornices are strewn with vine patterns, balconies are enclosed with flower-decorated metalwork, and doorways are crowned by large oval windows. These whimsical touches also serve a serious urban purpose in respecting and uplifting the ragtag Victorian character of the Shaw neighborhood.

Along M Street Northwest, the 11-story condominium building bows down to create the look of separate row houses. This six-story wing, the most engaging portion of the building, is segmented into four broad bays projecting 4 feet from the surrounding walls. These “town houses” and the adjacent recesses are varied in their brick colors and window shapes while unified by a battered base of tinted concrete resembling sandstone.

The formal logic behind this frontispiece is understood easily. It is based loosely on a grouping of 1870s houses across the street with ornate brackets and moldings and round windows set into mansard roofs. One of these Second-Empire-style town houses, 909 M St. NW, was owned by Blanche K. Bruce, the first black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. He represented Mississippi from 1875 to 1881. (The historic row appears in the 1979 film “Being There” as home to Chance, the simple-minded gardener played by actor Peter Sellers.)

“They are like divas,” architect Philip Esocoff says, gesturing toward the old Victorians. “The architecture is operatic. Our building needed to be just as exuberant, with a lower base that matches the height and scale of these historic structures.”

In responding to the low-rise houses, Mr. Esocoff and project architect Sasha Rosen deftly arranged architectural elements to make the “town houses” seem smaller than their six stories. The two-level faux-stone base appears as one tall story; the fourth- and fifth-floor windows, their metal frames painted a Victorian-inspired green, are joined together to create one large opening, and the sixth floor is screened by the curving concrete cornice so it doesn’t seem habitable.

The only jarring note within this skillful composition is the entrance to the lobby. Shoved into the western side under a metal canopy, its big glass doors and angled vestibule appear too modern and out of sync with the facade’s symmetry.

Less distinctive than the “town houses” are the upper and side portions of the L-shaped condominium building. Like an addition behind one of the city’s preserved old facades, the five top stories are pushed 40 feet away from the six-story frontage along M Street Northwest so they don’t seem so bulky. This setback has a functional benefit, enabling the long roof over the lower “town houses” to be divided into generous terraces for two-story apartments on the seventh and eighth floors. The duplexes are among the 45 different apartment layouts within the building, most with some type of outdoor space.

Within the upper stories, repetitive brick bays framed by rounded piers recall turrets and the architecture of a later addition to the historic row houses across the street. Between them are large panels of glass set into metal grids meant to resemble north-facing artists studios in the garrets of turn-of-the-last-century buildings. This glazing, some of it sloped, lightens the visual load above the “town houses,” but it looks too slick compared to the more articulated masonry sections.

The glass also detracts from the illusion of load-bearing masonry throughout the building that gives it a substantiality in contrast to the paper-thin quality of much postmodern architecture. Contributing to this effect are dry-pressed rather than extruded bricks, arranged to recall a historic Flemish bond pattern, and thin, grooved mortar joints. The combination resembles the crisp brickwork characteristic of older buildings that inspired the architects, such as the mansions near Dupont Circle designed by Hornblower and Marshall.

Mr. Esocoff expresses an appreciation for Washington’s architectural heritage, comparing his synthesis of history-minded elements to cooking with local produce rather than imported ingredients. Warm-colored masonry surfaces are well-suited to our city, the architect says, because they maintain a strong street presence even during our gloomy winters and hazy summers, unlike light-reflective glass that often blends into gray skies.

“Glass doesn’t patinate or age very well,” he says. “We’re trying to do buildings that will look better five years from now. It’s the difference between a vintage wine and Beaujolais nouveau.”

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