In December, I got into an interesting debate on the Dupont Forum neighborhood list about my feelings concerning the Third Church landmarking. Lance, who considers the building a “masterpiece,” asked if my desire to get rid of most 1970s-era buildings in downtown DC extended to more widely praised structures like the Watergate and Kennedy Center.
The Watergate and Kennedy Center are, as mid-20th century buildings go, pretty nice, and I’m not in favor of razing them. However, they still do not represent good urbanism either, especially when considered in context with the Potomac River Freeway which was built around the same time (the West Leg of the 1971 Inner Loop plan, whose cancelled North Leg would have ruined Dupont). Both buildings are clearly designed for cars and with a more suburban sensibility, such as the way the Watergate has an interior park but presents a mostly blank wall to the streetscape. Most land around the Kennedy Center is used for getting cars in, out and around, than for human beings.
I added that I hadn’t really had a chance to explore those sites in detail, which prompted me to take a walk down there for some photos. The area does indeed feel quite unfriendly to pedestrians, not surprising given the era in which it was built. The Watergate complex is attractive for its time, and even has retail along the street, though the main entrance still resembles a suburban hotel’s front door rather than an apartment complex in the heart of the city.
The Kennedy Center, on the other hand, was even worse than I remembered, its front area evoking an airport terminal with its wide, curving driveway, large empty plaza, and multiple places for shuttle buses and cars to pull up and discharge passengers. The building faces an enormous chasm of the Potomac River Freeway’s and its many ramps to E Street and the Roosevelt Bridge. Even people in the 1960s, not being entirely stupid, recognized the problems with the site; Washington Post architecture critic attacked the plan in 1962 calling it a “spaghetti maze”. Unfortunately, these voices did not prevail.
The Kennedy Center sought to fix these flaws in 2002-2004 with a plan to construct a plaza and buildings over the freeway (PDF) that would connect to E Street, creating an attractive pedestrian front entrance.
Unfortunately, the plaza’s funding was cut in 2005 by Congressional Republicans in favor of highway pork in Alaska and Illinois. Congress should revive this idea and take a huge step toward rectifying mistakes of the 1960s and restoring Washington’s grandeur around its great performing arts center.