Just south of the Friendship Heights commercial district is a one-story Pepco substation that looks mostly like a gray box and which one Washingtonian article called “an eyesore.” The Tenleytown Historical Society and Art Deco Society of Washington recently applied to designate it as a landmark. Should it be?
The substation, on Wisconsin Avenue near Harrison Street, was built in 1940 and is a one-story, L-shaped brick building with limestone on the front. As the nomination explains, following community opposition to building power substations in Columbia Heights, Pepco designed its stations to harmonize with the surrounding architecture. Here, that meant making it look like a one-story storefront similar to others nearby.
The building used to have plate glass windows, the nomination says, but they were later filled in with gray brick. Today, there are a pair of great murals of JFK covering the blank faux-storefronts. However, those murals are temporary; they were added in 2016 while Pepco upgrades the substation.
Local Advisory Neighborhood Commission chair Jonathan Bender told Washingtonian last year he hopes Pepco will restore the glass and perhaps feature local artists' work in the display areas. As a new and temporary feature, this isn't part of the historic nomination and not relevant to designating the building.
The substation lies immediately next to the WMATA Western Bus Garage (which includes the south entrance to the Friendship Heights Metro). Preservationists tried to landmark that, too in 2012, but there has never been a hearing on the application. Just behind the substation is a cluster of apartment buildings which the Tenleytown Historical Society is also trying to landmark; Eric Fidler argued that nomination isn't merited.
When is preservation about history versus stopping growth?
However, there must be a balance. Washington should preserve enough of the best and most significant buildings to maintain architectural distinction and a connection to the past, but also needs to meet the needs of a growing city with new housing, jobs, schools, and more.
People join preservation organizations for different reasons. Some truly love old and historic buildings, enjoy learning about the story of each one, telling it, and preserving it. Some love the architectural distinction in many of the past's most notable buildings, and lament the cases where true gems have been lost. Other people simply are alarmed that someone might build something in their neighborhood and want to stop change. They see the preservation law as one powerful weapon against growth.
WMATA will need to overhaul its garage in the not too distant future. When it does, building a mixed-use structure with retail, offices, or housing as well as a new garage could be a great way to better use the land on this block and generate money for the garage rebuild. If WMATA does apply to redevelop or modify the garage, preservation officials will have to take action one way or another on the 2012 application.
As for this building, Pepco doesn't like to do mixed-use projects and is just renovating the substation now, so it is not likely going anywhere anytime soon. But one day, who knows?
The criteria are very broad
One frustrating thing about reading landmark nominations is how little demonstration of actual historical importance is necessary. Most DC nominations check two of four federal criteria:
A. Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
C. Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.
Note the vague words: “Associated with events.” “Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction.” If you squint, basically every building is “associated” with some events. And does any building not embody characteristics of its method of construction? Every architectural period has a name; every building has a period; every construction has characteristics.
Some nominations revolve around truly notable associations with important events (Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation from the cottage at what's now the the Armed Forces Retirement Home, for instance). And some buildings are important examples of major architectural advances. But this nomination isn't about that kind of stuff.
Instead, this nomination talks about how Pepco needed new substations as the city grew and areas like this became settled, so they built them. That's basically the association with historical events. It's tautological; all buildings that are original to when their neighborhoods were built are associated with the historical event of the neighborhood being built.
The nomination does include a quite interesting history of Pepco. Some bits:
In 1907, Pepco’s proposal to construct a new substation at Harvard Street and Sherman Avenue was met with opposition from the surrounding Columbia Heights community which attempted to prevent its construction through court action. After a two month delay, construction of Substation no. 13 proceeded. The Harvard substation (no. 13), designed by Frederick B. Pyle, is notable for being the first purpose built substation built outside of Washington’s central core in one of the city’s growing suburbs (Columbia Heights). It is also the most architecturally significant of Pepco’s early substation designs prior to 1928.
Prior to construction of the Harvard substation, the small number of Washington suburban substations that existed were co-located with streetcar carbarns. After 1907, Pepco not only designed and built substations to conform with the zoning laws in the section of the city they occupied, but also adopted a philosophy of designing the buildings to harmonize, as much as possible, with the types of buildings prevailing in the surrounding neighborhood. A review of known Pepco substation design from 1899 to present reveals that Pepco’s philosophy of creating substations that architecturally harmonize with their surroundings has evolved over time.
In the 1939-1944 timeframe, Pepco was very concerned about enemy attacks on Washington's electrical infrastructure seeing as there was a big war going on. The utility took classical measures like adding guards and barbed wire fences at generating plants, but also had some architectural approaches:
In addition to Pepco’s efforts to strengthen security at its power plants, Pepco undertook efforts to make the entire system of energy distribution in Washington more secure. The result of these efforts went well beyond barbed wire and armed guards, and resulted in Pepco changing the very architectural design of its electrical substations – a break from an established design aesthetic developed a decade earlier by Arthur B. Heaton. ...
Pepco’s approach after the spring of 1939 embraced the art of deception, whereby Pepco architects designed substations that were camouflaged to reflect the built environment around them. Substations erected in residential neighborhoods were designed as either one- or two-story red brick colonial houses. These structures typically included slate roofs, painted shutters, and landscaped grounds.
The art of deception was carried out to such a detailed degree as to use trompe l'oeil paintings for the windows of the residential substations. Venetian blinds and curtains were painted on composition board and located within the windows to give an appearance of an inhabited house. Often times, these paintings included flowers or vines in the windows as well.
Alternatively, substations constructed on commercial streets, such as the Harrison substation, were constructed to resemble storefronts and included display windows with changing displays for Pepco, appliances, or the war effort.
I do think that's a pretty interesting story. But an interesting story worthy of a blog post isn't enough significance to legally add obstacles to changing or redeveloping the site.
Historian Kent Boese, who prepared this nomination for the Art Deco Society of Washington and Tenleytown Historical Society, also wrote nominations last year on behalf of the DC Preservation League for the Harvard Street substation mentioned above and the Champlain Street substation designed by Heaton. Both substations are slated for upgrades as part of Pepco's Capital Grid program.
Maybe some substations in the city should be designated, maybe not. This one especially just does not seem to be that significant, beyond being another example of a building Pepco built as the city grew, to look like other fairly unremarkable storefronts. It doesn't need to be a landmark.