Historic Preservation, of a sort

There are many odd buildings and many secretive buildings in D.C., but this building on 8th Street combines both oddity and secrecy in rare form.

If you look up along the block of 8th St between D and E Streets, you’ll see some facades that look like a child has drawn them.

The full effect takes up half a downhill block, and is very strange.

What are these facades and why are they there?

WHY they are there the easier question. The underlying building is a Pepco electrical substation. Pepco keeps quiet about its substations for security reasons, but generally tries to make them blend into the surrounding area and look less industrial. Putting these facades on this large building appears to have been an attempt to help give the industrial building a more benign feel.

It’s rare to get a glimpse of what is inside the building, but we happened to be lucky to be walking by when one of the large doors slid open and caught this view.

WHAT the facades are requires a bit of history of Pennsylvania Avenue. Prior to the 1960’s, Pennsylvania Avenue was pretty awful, so awful that President Kennedy was said to have hated the look of it during his Inaugural parade and became determined to do something about it. As with most things in D.C., a government commission was formed, and spent from the 1960’s to the 1980’s re-vitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lots of landmarks that have become major public spaces were created as part of this project:

  • Freedom Plaza in 1980
  • Pershing Park in 1981
  • John Marshall Park in 1983
  • Navy Memorial in 1987

Of course, for every grand new space, something else had to be destroyed. On Pennsylvania Avenue, this meant that small stores, restaurants, tattoo parlors, and tobacconists were knocked down. The buildings which had historic designations were kept, but the buildings that were just “historic” were not. There were the predictable lawsuits (Don’t Tear It Down, Inc. v Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation made it to the Court of Appeals), and after a lot of wrangling, everyone agreed that some effort would be made to save some of the history. Which turned out to mean that a few facades of the buildings ended up in storage for 10 years, and then in 1996 were flatted and pasted onto the Pepco substation for lack of any better place to go.

The six facades came from six different buildings. One piece is the easiest to recognize – this facade is from a 1886 building on the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania.

Library of Congress photo

The building also has painted grids that hint at the parts of the facades that are missing.

These grid lines had become faded and distressed since they were originally painted, but in the last couple of weeks, the lines and paint have been refreshed. The building still looks very odd, but is now bright and cheerful.

8th Street is also one of the epicenters of pigeons and starlings, so if you walk by there at twilight, you will see many birds perched, and a whirring noise coming from the Pepco building that sounds like thousands of birds are inside. Who knows what lurks therein?

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