455 Eye Street NW, a new apartment building, incorporates three historic buildings. All images from Equity Residential used with permission.

As DC grows, new buildings are often required to incorporate historic structures. That’s easier said than done, but the results can be worth the effort. Here’s how one new apartment building in Mount Vernon Triangle incorporated three historic buildings for new uses.

Located within the Mount Vernon Triangle Historic District, 455 Eye Street is a 174-unit residential building that opened this June. It consists of a tower atop three historic buildings around a landscaped courtyard. The historic structures provide a focal point and now house the building’s amenity spaces and a future restaurant.

Here’s how they did it

The District of Columbia is home to 27,000 buildings in 60 historic districts, including 600 buildings designated as historic landmarks with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. DC’s Office of Planning reviewed more than 5,100 historic projects in the last fiscal year, ranging from small projects like window or door replacements to the complicated projects like 455 Eye Street. The Historic Preservation Review Board reviewed about 200 major projects in that time frame, and saw the 455 Eye project twice, for conceptual and final reviews.  

Each of the three historic structures at 455 Eye Street has a unique history. When prominent military surveyor John Wyess built a 14-foot rowhouse on I Street NW in 1876, he contributed to a growing entrepreneurial and working-class boom in Mount Vernon Triangle fueled by immigrants; his elegant “W” still remains in the rowhouse pediment today, now restored.

Another German immigrant, William Beuchert, built a blacksmith shop on the alley in 1912, then added an auto repair shop in a two-story warehouse a few years later. The warehouse’s garage bay doors will provide access to outdoor seating at Prather’s on the Alley, a new 2,000-square-foot restaurant opening later this year.

The first risk in purchasing and developing a historic structure is not knowing what’s invisible in the building that could cause a challenge later, according to Ben Stoll, vice president of development with Equity Residential. “You evaluate the site structures as best you can, but ultimately any surprises you find will have to be worked into the overall design,” Stoll said. For example, the two rowhouses were in such bad shape that they had to be completely gutted, and even the joists were removed.

The courtyard shows how the old and new portions of the complex connect to one another.

The design of the building was in part driven by the historic structures. The blacksmith’s shop – which is now the lounge for the new building – was only permitted to have minor modifications to both the exterior and the interior. The architects had to work within the existing envelope to create a unique space while maintaining a barrier from the rest of the building, required by building codes to prevent fires from spreading. In addition, constructing underground parking beneath the century-old buildings would have required significant structural shoring, so the four-story parking garage sits entirely below the new tower.

The design team at Hickok Cole welcomed the challenges. “The whole concept of the massing of the building was designed to put the clean and modern structure over the old structure; it spirals up counter-clockwise, sensitive to the existing structures,” said Laurence Caudle, Principal and Director of Housing at Hickok Cole.

“All historic projects are particularly complicated, but this one’s probably more complicated than others,” Caudle said.

The new and historic portions of the building required setbacks from the street and alley, and changes in height. The result is 174 units that all have slightly different layouts. The rowhouses were converted into four two-bedroom units, all with walk-out access onto I Street.

DC required that the newer portions of the building be set back behind the historic structures.

This level of complication often requires a price premium from both a time and cost perspective. “Washington has a pretty sophisticated development community that recognizes that preservation can result in a far more interesting end product,” said Steve Callcott, Deputy Preservation Officer for the DC Office of Planning. “Many of the local developers know to take preservation into account, even if a site is not designated.”

Callcott’s office regularly fields developer questions about how to redevelop sites that are not officially designated historic. “For a development community that is going to be doing projects into the future, I think people have a pride of wanting to develop interesting projects rather than just the making of money on it,” Callcott said.

Historic elements create "authenticity"

“The historic features give you a foundation to understand and expand on what the character and the story of the building is going to be,” Stoll said. The developer commissioned four artists to create several dozen custom works of art, including a cold rolled steel concierge desk, a sliding barn door of reclaimed wood, and a hanging glass droplet fixture.

In addition, every brick in the primary amenity spaces – whether historic, repaired, or replaced – was meticulously hand-painted with layers of colors, including whites, deep reds and terracottas. In some instances, the original surface was so worn down that the walls were painted with the impression of brick.

Decorative finish artist and muralist Laura Harris spent two and a half months at 455 Eye Street. “I tried to think of it like a watercolor, where you wanted the colors to flow and end up really beautiful,” Harris said.

One of the historic structures became a common room.

The brick ends up acting like an extended canvas, guiding visitors and residents through the space. “We went through several iterations of how to treat that brick, and ultimately the artist created a seamless transition from old to new and maintained the historic integrity through the new building,” Stoll said. The brick treatment is one of his favorite elements of the project.

The interior design team at Hickok Cole walked through the building to salvage historic components that could then be incorporated into the design. A notable item is a large 36” orange fan found in an elevator shaft, which became a glass-topped coffee table in the two-story lounge area, created by James Kerns of Corehaus, a local DC metal and wood-working studio. Kerns also wrapped the blacksmith’s space in steel paneling, forming a creative drink rail while modernizing the space and hiding electrical outlets.

“These historic elements give the building such cache,” Caudle said. “You can’t recreate that grit and authenticity.”