Washington is home to myriad mid-century residential buildings by nationally known architects. The most unique among these is the River Park development, located on 4th Street SW between N and O Streets. Its aluminum details and barrel-roofed townhouses stand out in a sea of concrete and brick boxes.
When you approach the 1962 complex of townhouses and apartments, you're hit with the visual double whammy of curved roofs and shiny aluminum. Three-story townhouses with aluminum barrel roofs congregate around concrete courtyards, and to the east, the nine story apartments’ aluminum ornament glints in the sun. It’s hard to know where to look first.
Barrel roofs are most commonly seen in agricultural and industrial buildings. Perhaps because of this association, they do not evoke the elegance of a domed roof, like that of the Capitol or a medieval church. But unlike domes, barrel roofs can cover rectangular structures. They also feel novel when presented in an urban context and executed in metal.
Aluminum is a more common feature of urban architecture. The Empire State Building is the most notable example, using steel for its frame and ceiling. Today, many architects incorporate aluminum into their designs as a decorative feature or exterior cladding. This draws on Charles Goodman’s use of the material at River Park, where it was also used as ornament on the townhouses and apartments.
Architectural aluminum in Southwest was no accident: Reynolds Metals sponsored the project, hoping it would result in aluminum becoming the era’s preferred roofing material. Aluminum is one of the lightest weight metals employed for roofing, and more resistant to corrosion than steel. However aluminum never overtook steel in popularity, and both remain uncommon choices for residential architecture. Metal, especially aluminum, is expensive, liable to dent, and more difficult to modify than shingles.
Nonetheless, it is these two features of River Park that make the development noteworthy and exciting. Completed the same year that The Jetsons first aired, the buildings project a techno-cool image of modernity. Yet barrel roofs and extensive aluminum details never became mainstream; instead, River Park is a unique design in a sea of more representative mid-century modern housing.
Unlike Goodman’s own Alexandria home and his designs in Virginia Heights, the dwellings are not landmarks listed on the DC Inventory. However, the residences are the sort of place its inhabitants purchased because of, not in spite of, their designs. The DC Inventory is the city official list of historic sites that posses exceptional historic or architectural significance, and are thus protected against demolition. Developers' increased interest in Southwest may make the neighborhood a target for redevelopment — but the pride River Park's owners have in its distinctive character may help preserve the community.
Redevelopment is not new for Southwest. River Park, and most of the residences and government offices that define its landscape, are the result of the nascent urban renewal movement of the 1950s. DC’s wholesale condemnation and demolition of the quadrant’s row houses was one of the first actions in a nationwide epidemic weaponizing the ideals of progress and safety to remove low income residents, especially African-Americans, from their homes.
Once a predominantly white area, by the 1950s, many longtime residents left swampy Southwest. Black residents remained, and more arrived as exclusionary covenants kept even wealthy families from having their pick of neighborhoods. Crowded with sanitary housing — working class housing that incorporated then-modern features like indoor plumbing — and alley dwellings, the city came to view the quadrant as an embarrassment. The Redevelopment Land Agency marked 96% of the houses obsolete or blighted, using few objective measures. Residents were evicted, row houses bulldozed, and a bevy of famed architects including I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, and Charles Goodman designed the sprawling mid-century landscape that remains. Yet River Park may have been one of the first desegregated housing complexes in Washington.
Today these developments have aged into candidates for historic designation. This causes no shortage of controversy. In one sense the buildings represent the oppression of the 1950s and 1960s. Taken together, the meandering residences also demonstrate a style of city development that has fallen out of vogue.
Yet this architecture can also serve as a reminder of what came before. Landmark nominations, like that of the Tiber Island apartments, focus on these very structures as emblematic of the era’s urban contradiction: exclusionary and aesthetically forward looking at the same time. A nomination to preserve some of the quadrant’s last remaining working class brick row houses is also pending.
In understanding these controversial buildings we can understand the neighborhood that preceded them and how it was dismantled. With the surge in popularity of mid-century design, there is more opportunity than ever to involve people in understanding how this part of Washington was built. Studying River Park and its contemporaries is an important way to appreciate interesting architecture in the present, but simultaneously ensure that though earlier Southwest is gone, it is not forgotten.