I grew up along a somewhat downscale edge of the upscale Washington neighborhood of Cleveland Park. The Bureau of Standards was nearby, and so was WTTG Channel 5, a local TV station. Our house, a relatively plain but lovable semi-detached, was four up from Connecticut Avenue, with a row of large apartment complexes extending many blocks north on Connecticut opposite from where our street, Rodman, T’d with the avenue, to the several nearest of which I delivered the Washington Star when I was a boy.
Later in my life, after college but before my first newspaper job, I lived near Dupont Circle in a room in a townhouse that had two stone balustrade balconies (the room itself had a pair of balconies; the townhouse had more). Around that time, the Metro opened and the first leg came through Dupont Circle and concluded at Cleveland Park, easing my frequent journeys to dine with my parents.
So imagine my joy when I learned just the other day that a new apartment complex has opened up right near my old stomping grounds – and a beautiful one at that, called Park Van Ness, on the site of a former skating rink that eventually housed WTTG. Its design was modernist. As I kid, I would not have cared – or at least I would not have realized that I did care – but as an architecture critic, the new building’s Art Deco style so near my old home sends shivers of joy up my spine.
Both it and its predecessor are of similar massing, a long central building with with end wings at right angles to the main mass, but there the likeness ends. What once was a parking lot is now a plaza that leads to an arch that takes you through the building to Rock Creek Park, which extends all the way from the Maryland suburbs to the core of the national capital. Nobody will miss the former building except for reasons of nostalgia. I do miss it, for such reasons alone. Its status as a skating rink elapsed long before I lived nearby, and after that few visited what was called the Van Ness Center to satisfy their need for aesthetic pleasure. But still …
Robert Steuteville, writing for the blog Public Square, which he edits for the Congress of the New Urbanism, has this to say of Park Van Ness:
Options for walking, bicycling, and transit are plentiful—as is on-street parking—and so the Park Van Ness includes fewer than one parking space per unit. A courtyard faces the primary thoroughfare.
Neighbor Justin Wood appreciates the contribution to place. “The Art Deco styling of the building feels like it’s been in the neighborhood for a much longer time than a few months. It feels natural mixed in with other older buildings.”
Great care was given to maintain the “art” in the Art Deco language. Numerous custom decorative pre-cast panels throughout the main facade evoke themes from the adjacent park. Additionally, two custom sculptures were commissioned which bookend the archway into the park. Custom paintings, also inspired by the park, are placed throughout the public spaces.
Torti Gallas + Partners won a Charter Award in 2017 for Park Van Ness.
His headline is “A gift of nature and architecture,” and he cites the view of Rock Creek Park through the archway as a gift to the community. The CNU has had and still has issues with what it considers beautiful – at least, unlike modernist organizations, it believes beauty is important. The Charter Award for Park Van Ness and, indeed, the logo for its “Building Places People Love” initiative, and most of the projects illustrated on the CNU website, suggest that CNU is beginning to see the light and is tilting more toward traditional architecture as the model for New Urbanist projects.
Most people remain unaware that the last couple of decades have seen a battle between traditional and modernist design in the movement, or at least in the CNU organization, and it would be healthy for its long-term success if people becoming newly interested in its programs engage the CNU without even realizing that. This battle is, I hope, reaching a sensible conclusion in the style wars that grip architecture as a whole.