Page B2.2 . 05 May 2004                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department
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D.C. Chinatown Restoration


Douglas Development, with the help of GTM Architects, of which I'm a partner, set out to revitalize Chinatown and turn it into a vibrant dining and retail destination for the residents of Washington D.C. At the same time, we wanted to maintain and accentuate the historic character of the area.

Balancing Preservation and Safety

Although the ideal of preservation has been accepted by some developers, it still meets with resistance due to the high financial cost. There is often a debate about whether to knock down an old building and start over, or to maintain the existing facade and structure and work within that framework.

This debate is especially heated when centered on historic structures. While historical and cultural organizations typically resist changes to or demolition of older structures, each individual case of preservation needs to be evaluated independently.

We feel it is important to maintain the physical appearance of history because it keeps us mindful of an area's rich past. However, if a building is to remain useful, it is also necessary to modify it for modern functions and to keep neighborhoods alive.

Older buildings seldom meet today's safety and accessibility standards. So architects are challenged to integrate wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, elevator shafts, enclosed fire-rated egress stairs, sprinklers, and air conditioning, while balancing this modernization with preservation.

In the case of the Chinatown project, the postrenovation buildings look much the same from the outside as they did when built in the 19th century. But changes inside make the buildings more functional.

Many of the original, narrow three- and four-story row structures are now connected inside and share elevators, stairs, and other building services. Ramps accommodate the varying floor levels between buildings, creating a more flexible internal space.

Several of the original facades had been previously altered or removed, but the architectural team at GTM was able to replicate several of the original designs by working from historical documentation dating back to 1860.

One example is located at 7th Avenue and G Street in Chinatown. The redesign of these buildings in the 1960s and 70s ignored the original Italianate and Victorian styles of the area. Historic photos depict three identical four-story buildings adjacent to one another. One building had been demolished, one was mostly intact, and the third had been modified significantly.

The architects at GTM repaired the mostly intact facade and returned the modified one to its original design. In effect, the architects put the pieces of a historical puzzle back together.

Maintaining Community Character

It is not uncommon, in U.S. cities, for once-flourishing neighborhoods to become rundown and abandoned. The neglected buildings do not necessarily lose their character, however, and with care and funding can be brought back to life.

Washington D.C.'s Chinatown fits this description. It was once a thriving commercial center in the early 1900s, but over time, its founding German immigrant population migrated to the suburbs and other areas of the city. In the 1930s this area became home to Chinese immigrants, who added Asian-inspired decorative latticework, ornamental metal railings, and Chinese/English signage.

GTM worked closely with the DC Historic Preservation Review Board, the DC Preservation League, and the Chinese Steering Committee, an advisory group to the DC Planning Review. We created a balance between Chinese influences and the original building design. Height, scale, rhythm, proportion, and richness of detail, common elements of both Chinese and Victorian architecture, are used to harmoniously blend the new and the old while addressing the competing interests of the various boards.

The Final Bow

The aspiration of any commercial redevelopment is that the property will generate long-term revenue, provide local employment opportunities, and turn an abandoned area back into a vibrant, growing neighborhood.

As the Chinatown project neared completion, a dramatic change was already noticeable. Just as in years past, Chinatown now provides quality retail, restaurant and office space. Current tenants include Legal Sea Foods, Radio Shack, Greenpeace, and the headquarters of the Douglas Development Corporation.

All these spaces have been rebuilt based on historic documentation, and the interiors have been modified to meet the functional needs and standards of modern consumers. In addition, the recently completed sports arena, the MCI Center, across the street, is drawing people back into Chinatown, especially at night.

Preserving historic structures and neighborhoods is a physical reminder of our cultural history. It is critical for any city, and especially the nation's capitol, to maintain its built history in all its diversity.

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Melissa Cohen is a partner at GTM Architects, a full service architecture, planning, and interior design firm in Kensington, Maryland. She is the head of historic preservation for the firm and is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Society for Preservation Technology, and The Maryland Historic Trust.



ArchWeek Image

The preservation of Washington D.C.'s Chinatown, by GTM Architects, has contributed to the neighborhood's revitalization.
Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Photography

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Nineteenth-century buildings were remodeled for contemporary uses without destroying the outward historic character.
Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Photography

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The neighborhood in the early 20th-century.
Photo: GTM Architects

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Before restoration, the block suffered from neglect, insensitive remodels, and abandonment.
Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Photography

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Building facades before restoration.
Photo: Kenneth M. Wyner Photography

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Floor plans, before restoration.
Image: GTM Architects

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After restoration, the floor plans were opened up and made more amenable to modern standards and functions.
Image: GTM Architects

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Some of the original buildings were connected inside, with ramps to accommodate the varying floor levels.
Image: GTM Architects


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