Introduction to ADSW’s Historic Preservation Activities

Like many other Art Deco societies in the United States and around the world, the Art Deco Society of Washington (ADSW) was founded as a preservation organization in the 1980s, a time when many Art Deco buildings were threatened by a boom in urban development. Indeed, such notable Washington, D.C., Art Deco buildings as the Trans-Lux Theater, the Apex Theater, and the Roger Smith Hotel were being demolished and replaced with uninspired office buildings.

In May of 1982, a small group of local Art Deco enthusiasts had the opportunity to meet with Barbara Baer Capitman, the crusading defender of Miami Beach Art Deco, who was traveling the country to encourage formation of Art Deco preservation groups in major American cities. In the fall of that year, these pioneers incorporated the Art Deco Society of Washington as a non-profit organization with a Board of Directors and author/historian Richard Striner as president. As the new organization began to receive attention, membership quickly grew to several hundred. A newsletter, titled Trans-Lux after the theater that was demolished in 1975, was launched and continues to be published to this day. A few years later, the distinctive prismatic mirror tower of the Trans-Lux theater also became the inspiration for our organization’s logo.

Almost immediately, in the summer of 1983, came ADSW’s first preservation emergency, a threat to the Greenbelt Center School. Residents of the city of Greenbelt, Maryland, built as a New Deal project of the Resettlement Administration in a suburban location, were proud of their community and its heritage, but they felt that they needed a new and more up-to-date elementary school building to serve their needs. ADSW was able to persuade the community and the Prince Georges County public school system to build the new school on a different site and allow the city to retain the original school building as a community center. At about the same time, ADSW also had the opportunity to consult with the developer and architect planning to redevelop the long-closed Penn Theatre site as a mixed-use project, to be called 650 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, that would incorporate parts of the theater.

In 1984, Hans Wirz and Richard Striner’s book, Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation’s Capital, was published, drawing attention to the city’s rich Art Deco heritage and building stock, as well as to ADSW. In the same year, the organization needed this additional strength to be able to launch campaigns to save two important buildings. The Washington Greyhound Terminal was about to be abandoned and demolished, while the Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center complex in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, was also neglected and threatened. In the former case, the original building had been “slipcovered” in the 1970s to make it seem more modern, obliterating its original sophisticated Art Deco appearance, and no one was sure if the original facade was intact. In the latter case, the owner actually began destruction of the theatre’s Art Deco marquee, tower and other ornamental features in an effort to make the building seem less attractive and not worth including in a proposed Silver Spring historic district. These were not simple projects. The two campaigns would occupy ADSW’s time and energy over a span of 20 years and require the efforts of many dedicated volunteers and experts. But the results have saved icons of our community’s Art Deco heritage and given them new lives for all to enjoy. In 1991 the Greyhound Terminal reopened as the lobby of a major office building at 1100 New York Avenue, NW, with a historic display that is open to the public. In 2003 the Silver Theatre reopened as the authentically refurbished AFI Silver, while in 2004 the Silver Spring Shopping Center came back to serve as the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown Silver Spring.

Over the years ADSW has undertaken a great variety of preservation campaigns–most successful, though some not. In the 1980s, for example, ADSW successfully supported an application in Montgomery County, Maryland, to create a historic district consisting of the unique Polychrome Houses in Silver Spring. These dwellings are constructed of precast exposed aggregate concrete panels ornamented in Art Deco style by John Joseph Earley, a local master of this medium.

We also successfully supported and application to landmark the distinctive Bethesda Theatre, designed by the same architect as the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. In the 1990s, we submitted a landmark application for the iconic Hecht Company Warehouse in Washington, citing extensive research demonstrating the building’s importance in demonstrating the best in Art Deco design while remaining highly functional. We were able to celebrate both the successful designation of the warehouse and then its meticulous restoration by the owner, the May
Company, at that time the parent company of the department store. Also in those years, we supported the landmark application for the Sears branch store in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington. This was also approved, and the building, though no longer a Sears store, remains a retail location.

Some sad losses during the 1980s and 90s included the Star Parking Plaza, also the work of John Joseph Earley. Another loss was the much admired Governor Shepherd apartment building in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington. Also very frustrating was the campaign to save the Senator Theater of Washington on Minnesota Ave., NE, an unusual case in which the large auditorium of the theater was ruled not worthy of landmark protection while the facade of the theater and lobby space were kept. Since anticipated redevelopment of the site did not proceed as planned, a very forlorn fragment of this once fine theater was left standing alone populated by a few small shops. Another disappointment was the redevelopment of the Bethesda Theatre site mentioned above. A commitment was made to retain the theater building in its entirety, but the plan was to encase it almost entirely within a new apartment building. ADSW’s effort to have the new construction set back enough to demonstrate that the theater remains intact and is not merely an appendage to the project was rejected. This has had the effect of diminishing the appearance of the theater, although the space seems to be succeeding as an entertainment space with an Art Deco theme.

But the twenty-first century has seen more satisfactory results than disappointments. Recent efforts in Silver Spring have supported the designation of a former Canada Dry bottling plant that is now part of a residential project that is reasonably sympathetic to the historic building. We also supported the landmark designation of a substantial portion of the New Deal-era Falkland Apartments, although there will be an unfortunate demolition of a section of this carefully planned complex for transportation-centered redevelopment at some time in the future. In Washington, an iconic survivor of the Waffle Shop chain on 10th Street, NW, was successfully landmarked by a coalition of preservation organizations including ADSW. This was accompanied by an agreement to allow the shop to be dismantled and reconstructed on a new site when its present site is ready for redevelopment.

At present, we are pursuing several worthy projects. The Hecht Company Warehouse, no longer owned or used by a department store, is slated for residential redevelopment. ADSW has been working closely with the owner and architects to find the best way to preserve this iconic Art Deco building while adapting it for successful reuse and creating a sympathetic setting to enhance the project. We are consulting with the owner of the Waffle Shop to find the right place to reconstruct it and put it to good use. We also intend to draw attention to a proposal in downtown Silver Spring that will overwhelm the facade of the former Hecht Company branch store that is now part of an urban shopping mall–with the hope that the decorative scheme can be made more Art Deco friendly.