The West Heating Plant, an Art Moderne building completed in 1946, was designed by the Supervising Architect of the Federal Public Buildings Administration. In 2013, as surplus property and as a contributing building to the Georgetown Historic District, it was put up for auction by the Government Services Administrator. It was purchased by The Georgetown Company and The Levy Group in collaboration with the Four Seasons Hotel, which is adjacent the heating plant. The conveyance included a covenant with a determination that the building qualifies as an individual landmark on the National Register of Historic Sites and the requirement that any project must comply with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Historic Buildings. The covenant also contains a waiver that would allow the State Historic Preservation Officer to approve a project that does not comply with the standards. Admittedly counting on the waiver (HPRB hearing of 2 November 2017), the development team has proposed a high-end condominium building that would proposes more than 75% demolition of the landmark. The developer’s engineer has determined that the building has deteriorated beyond any possibility of adaptive use. However, an independent assessment that was commissioned by the Commission of Fine Arts determined that the building can, in fact, be substantially preserved. In reality, the proposed demolition is predicated primarily not on the impossibility of reusing the building but on the need to increase the window ratio to one that is appropriate for high-end residential use.
David Adjaye, architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was hired to design the condominium building and Lori Olin, a nationally-recognized landscape architect, to design the adjacent park. Early in 2017, the Old Georgetown Board, with purview over the Georgetown Historic District, has denied the project, finding the demolition baseless. The development team then appealed the decision to the Commission of Fine Arts, which comments only on design and which approved the proposal.
In November 2017, the Historic Preservation Review Board designated the heating plant as an individual landmark to be added to the National Register of Historic Sites. The development team opposed the designation, thus violating the covenant to which it agreed when it purchased the property.
HPRB has yet to rule on the proposal. At the request of the development team, the project has been postponed several times. The HPRB staff report, however, recommends denial of the project, finding the substantial demolition to be inconsistent with the purposes of the preservation act. The development team will appeal this decision to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation. The only basis upon which the Mayor’s Agent can allow the demolition is for a project of special merit. It is the development team’s hope that a design by an internationally renowned architect will thus qualify. Unfortunately, the building continues to deteriorate as the review process proceeds.
- C100 Testimony USCFA West Heating Plant
- May 18, 2017, Sally Berk
The fact that the Heating Plant is significance as a familiar landmark is, unfortunately, under-appreciated. One of the primary purposes of preservation is to retain those layers of history that tell the story of a place. Most of us thrill to the bold presence of a power plant when we approach a new city; or encounter one while exploring a city. The power plant represents the vitality of the city. And whether or not it remains as a source of power, it does, indeed, remain a source of pride and a lesson in history. The proposal before you today, defaces that iconography.
- C100 Testimony OGB West Heating Plant
- April 6, 2017, Sally Berk
C100 is opposed to the proposal before you today, which seeks to demolish the West Heating Plant. This would not only violate the city’s preservation ordinance, but also the historic and cultural preservation easement that conveyed with the property when it was purchased from the US Government Services Administration. That easement stipulates that any plans for the building must meet the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Those standards, obviously, do not provide for demolition.
- C100 Testimony 2016 OGB West Heating Plant
- February 4, 2016, Sally Berk
The Committee of 100 recognized that the West Heating Plant is not simply a contributing building in the Georgetown Historic District, but a building that is significant in its own right as 1) indicative of the industrial role that Georgetown played in the history of the nation’s capital for more than two centuries; 2) an exemplar of late Art Moderne design as applied to an industrial building; 3) a monumental presence in Georgetown that has served as a familiar landmark of the waterfront.