The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929

Lecture by Andrew S. Dolkhart
February 2

One hundred years ago, urban row houses, now so beloved, were considered a blight on city streets. They were deteriorated, technologically obsolete, stylistically outmoded, and many predicted that they would soon be demolished. But early in the 20th century, architects, artists, real estate developers, and others rediscovered these old houses. They were not restored in the way we would today, but were completely redesigned. Facades were stripped and covered in bright-colored stucco, highlighted with tiles, flower boxes, artist-studio windows, and other artistic motifs; utilitarian rear yards were transformed into gardens; and interior plans were rearranged so that major rooms overlooked these new landscapes. This movement began in New York City in 1908, transforming many now-popular neighborhoods, such as Gramercy Park, the far East Side, and Greenwich Village, and influenced urban redevelopment projects in other cities, notably Boston and Philadelphia. This design and urban revitalization movement was widely chronicled in the early 20th century, in both popular and professional journals, but has been largely forgotten today. Indeed, many of these redesigned houses are endangered as some owners seek to remove the early 20th-century alterations and “restore” the houses to their 19th-century character.

The redesign of row houses in the early decades of the 20th century and the impact that this movement had on neighborhood development is the subject of Andrew Dolkart’s award-winning book, The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Development in New York City, 1908-1929. This lecture will discuss the movement in New York and in other cities, arguing that we need to look at the row house in a new way, respecting changes that altered their appearance early in the last century.

Andrew S. Dolkart is the Director of the Historic Preservation Program and the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Thinking About Washington's Public Spaces

March 19-20

Ninth Biennial Symposium on the Historic Development of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest:  Learning from Palladio

Lecture by Travis McDonald
April 28

Two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson began using his retirement villa, Poplar Forest.  The creation story of this unique and personal architectural work is one that reaches back to the 16th century works of Andrea Palladio. The lecture will trace the development of the radically modern Poplar Forest, explore Jefferson’s ties to Palladio’s ideas and highlight how this work, more than any other he designed, embraces the timeless quest to unite man and nature in architectural space.

The urban renewal projects of the post-World War II period were idealistic and forward thinking, but they were not without aspects we would now view as desperate and misguided.  Initially planned in 1952-55 and realized with many revisions between 1957 and 1970, Southwest Washington was one of the earliest urban renewal efforts in the United States.  It was the city’s most comprehensive attempt to redevelop an entire neighborhood that had suffered both geographic and economic isolation for many decades.

 The individual components of the master plan reflected a high level of architecture and landscape design.  The list of architects involved includes: Marcel Breuer, I. M. Pei, Edward Durrell Stone, Cloethiel Woodard Smith, Charles M. Goodman, and Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.  Much of the landscape design was devised by Dan Kiley and Hideo Sasaki.  Many of these high-rise apartment and condominium buildings and townhouse clusters may seem unremarkable today, which attests to the widespread dissemination of similar architectural and urban enclaves throughout the country and the creation of a twentieth-century modern vernacular.

Led by James A. Jacobs, Ph.D, architectural historian, National Park Service

Members-Only Study Tour of Southwest Washington

May 22

The gentrification of Brooklyn has been one of the most striking developments in recent urban history. Considered a “blighted” slum by city planners in the 1940s and 1950s, Brownstone Brooklyn by the 1980s had become a landscape of hip bars, yoga studios, and expensively renovated townhouses in new neighborhoods with creative names like “Boerum Hill” and “Carroll Gardens.” In his recently published work The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman locates the origins of gentrification in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Starting in Brooklyn Heights in the 1940s, a new urban middle class (or “brownstoners” as they referred to themselves) began to migrate into Brooklyn’s brownstone areas, purchasing and renovating aging townhouses. Where postwar city leaders championed slum clearance and modern architecture, "brownstoners" sought a new romantic urban ideal that celebrated historic buildings, industrial lofts and traditional ethnic neighborhoods as source of authenticity they felt was lacking in new suburbs and downtown skyscrapers. They started new reform democratic organizations, founded block associations and joined forces with long-time residents to battle urban renewal. But as brownstoners migrated into poorer areas, race and class tensions emerged, and by the 1980s, as newspapers parodied yuppies and anti-gentrification activists marched through increasingly expensive neighborhoods, brownstoners debated whether their search for authenticity had been a success or failure.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification, Renovation, and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar Brooklyn

Lecture by Suleiman Osman, PhD
September 13

By 1939 suburban subdivisions were a familiar element in the American landscape. The spurious suburb created in the 1939 New York World’s Fair Town of Tomorrow offered visitors a sampler of tradition and innovation packaged for consumers just beginning to emerge from the depths of economic depression. Shortly before the Fair opened in the spring of 1939 Washington, D.C., subdivider and developer Garden Homes, Inc., secured the rights to use the Fair Corporation’s name and the plans to one of the 15 demonstration homes from the Town of Tomorrow. Designed by New York architects Godwin, Thompson and Patterson and sponsored by the Johns-Manville Corporation, House No. 15, the Long Island Colonial Home, became Garden Homes’ 1939 marketing centerpiece in Northwood Park, the Silver Spring, Maryland, subdivision located less than three miles north of the District of Columbia. 

Northwood Park was an ordinary subdivision with modest brick Cape Cod cottages and larger stone Tudor Revival houses marketed to young professionals with new families. Using common real estate trade tools, Garden Homes lured prospective buyers through creatively illustrated and worded display ads hawking Northwood Park’s rustic charm and affordability. The firm used themed models like the Bride’s Home and the Anniversary Home equipped with the latest modern gas appliances; some came with a brand new car in the garage and a supply of groceries. Garden Homes’ ads were packed with multiple meanings to bring middle class doctors, engineers, and government employees into their subdivision. Their most successful marketing vehicle was the “World’s Fair Home” which drew thousands of sightseers and many prospective buyers to Northwood Park in the spring of 1939 during a carefully crafted 120-day marketing campaign.

David S. Rotenstein currently owns a consulting firm, Historian For Hire in Decatur, Georgia researching property and personal histories.

Bringing the World’s Fair Home to Silver Spring, Maryland

Lecture by David S. Rotenstein, PhD
November 2

In 2001, the Latrobe Chapter presented a symposium devoted to the work of Washington native John Joseph Earley (1881-1945). Earley’s pioneering work in perfecting the quality of exposed aggregate cast concrete and his invention of polychrome mosaic concrete were explored in detail. This tour revisited four of his projects on 16th Street that demonstrate the evolution of his work.

The Shrine of the Sacred Heart (1923) is the project for which Earley essentially invented polychrome concrete mosaics as he sought to fulfill the ambitious plans of his own parish church to decorate the interior with Byzantine and Romanesque mosaics.  Meridian Hill Park (1915-1936) was where Earley began his work in exposed aggregate  concrete with the goal of making the selected inexpensive masonry material, architectural concrete, more attractive in color and texture. In between these two innovative and pioneering structures, we examined the facades of two later projects.  The richly decorated facade of the local Scottish Rite Temple (1939), 18 feet high and 8 feet wide, is the largest panel ever made by the Earley Studio, and the massive flanking urns are his work, as well. At Meridian Hill Hall, built as a women’s dormitory for government workers in 1942, the simple spare lines lend themselves to Earley’s warmly tinted concrete panels and delicate ornament.

Members-only Study Tour of the Concrete Work of John Joseph Earley: 16th Street from the Shrine of the Sacred Heart to Meridian Hill Park

Led by Linda Lyons
November 19

The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is a quintessential example of Beaux-Arts design. Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz were clearly inspired by Garnier’s Paris Opera. When completed in 1897, the building was heralded for it size, cost, and safety.  The architecture expresses the Library’s role as a destination for visitors as much as it addresses its functions of storage and research. Its lavish decorative scheme symbolizes the world of knowledge and culture as a contextual platform for displaying American contributions to both. Join us in taking a fresh look at familiar landmark as we explore the richness of the architecture and decoration, well served by the restoration completed in 1997.

Members-only Study Tour of the Library of Congress  

December 3