The Keegan Theatre, on Church Street in Dupont Circle, plans to renovate its building and add a small addition, a new and glassier lobby.

Rendering of proposed design. All images from the Keegan Theatre.

The changes will give the cramped theater the backstage space it needs, and will make it accessible to persons with disabilities. The biggest debate will likely revolve around design. Is a lobby with wavy glass an impressive addition to the block, or will it distract from the existing historic fabric?

Current building needs changes

The brick building, on Church between 17th and 18th, was originally the gymnasium for the private all-girls Holton-Arms School, which was located in Kalorama until moving to Bethesda in 1963. In 1975, the building became a theater, and the Keegan became its full-time resident company in 2009.

The building today. Image from the Keegan Theatre, recolorized by the author.

It’s a charming and intimate theater, and the Keegan has put on some great productions there, but the building poses some big obstacles. The front steps are not accessible for people with disabilities, and the front lobby is very small. There’s a very limited backstage area and almost no space for building sets, creating costumes and props, or for actors to dress.

The bathrooms are tiny, squeezed into the basement, and not very nice. During intermission, there are long waits. I live on this particular block, and so when Greater Greater Wife and I go there for shows, we just go home to use the restroom between acts, but that’s not an option for most people.

After seeing the condition of the bathrooms, an arts donor gave the Keegan money to renovate the space. They shared with neighbors and the ANC their proposed plans to dig out a basement, to create space for production and green rooms, opening up more space for the lobby and bathrooms.

The only externally-visible change would be a small new foyer in the current side yard, between the theater and the building next door. The new foyer would make space for an ADA-compliant elevator and new stairs between floors.

At a recent community meeting, one question from neighbors revolved around the design of the addition. The architect, Stoiber & Associates, has proposed a very modern look for the addition, with wavy lines and multi-colored glass.

Besides the theater, Church Street is filled with turn-of-the-century painted brick townhouses, with a few larger apartment buildings at the end of the block and one in the middle, across from the Keegan. Would a tiny addition just over 16 feet wide in this style look very strange tucked amid the rows of brick townhouses?

What do you think?

Preservationists differ on “compatibility”

This question raises a point of great debate in historic preservation. When a new building comes into a historic area, or a historic building gets an addition, the law says that the addition must be “compatible” with the historic district. But what is “compatible”?

The Old Georgetown Board rejected this. Rendering by Topher Mathews.

Some preservationists feel that “compatible” means the new addition should resemble the old in style. This is the approach review boards take in some places, such as Georgetown. The Old Georgetown Board wanted the Georgetown Apple store to look like a Georgetown building and not a typical glassy or white Apple store.

There’s some merit to this approach. Georgetown has a charm that comes from a consistent architectural style. Architects often want to make their buildings as flashy as possible, but rows of small buildings like those along a commercial strip shouldn’t out-compete each other for dazzle; they should look like a row. They needn’t all be identical, but shouldn’t create a chaotic riot either.

In the rest of DC’s historic districts, the Historic Preservation Office has generally taken a different approach. They argue that a new building should not try to look like old buildings, but exhibit a style and materials “of its time.” In other words, a building built in 2012 should look to the observer like a 2012 building.

But not all 2012 buildings look alike. A 2012 building could use brick, like the rest of the street, only it could look like 2012 brick. Or, it could strive for a super-modern look that’s totally opposite.

JBG U Street proposal. Image from JBG.

At a recent Historic Preservation Review Board meeting, board member Graham Davidson criticized a project on Florida Avenue, saying, “Your responsibility is not to create an icon… [but] to knit the neighborhood back together.” Will the board want something iconic or something that seems to connect the fabric on both sides?

The theater is in the center of a residential block, and is a larger building than the adjacent row houses. That means it already serves as a focal point rather than a part of the row. By that logic, a prominent addition would make sense, to further punctuate the building’s unique role among its neighbors.

On the other hand, the board might feel that a flashy design for a tiny addition detracts from the beautiful, old, historic main theater, and want something less conspicuous. They could ask Keegan to tone down the flash and dazzle in favor of either a more modest glass atrium or a brick addition that doesn’t stand out.

As a resident of the block, I can see both sides of this one. As modern designs go, this is actually fairly attractive. However, always hard to know for sure how a project will look just from its renderings. Will the colors be as vibrant as they appear there? How much will it stand out, really? Plus, this isn’t a large building in a distinctive architectural style; it will be 15 feet wide. Will such a small piece look too strange with such different materials from everything else?

Regardless of the approach Keegan and HPRB choose, a renovated theater that meets the needs of today will enhance the neighborhood and strengthen the arts in DC. The donor’s contribution goes a long way, but the Keegan will need to raise more money from its audience and supporters to get the project built.

Keegan will present the latest draft of the plans to ANC 2B at next Wednesday’s meeting, and the Historic Preservation Review Board will discuss the proposal later this month.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.