‘Banal, Generic’ Dept. of Education Building Eyed for Possible Historic Designation

By Barbara Hollingsworth | April 4, 2016 | 4:03pm EDT
The Department of Education's Lyndon Baines Johnson Building in
Southwest D.C. (Twitter)

 

(CNSNews.com) – The General Services Administration (GSA) is eyeing the Department of Education’s Lyndon Baines Johnson Building in Southwest Washington, D.C. for possible inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

But some critics believe that the Modernist building does not merit an historic designation. 

“This is one of the most banal, generic buildings you can imagine,” Justin Shubow, president of the D.C.-based non-profit National Civic Art Society, told CNSNews.com.

According to a 2011 Determination of Eligibility by the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the massive block-long structure, which was completed in 1961, is “eligible for listing” in the National Register.

lyndon_b_johnson_department_of_education_building_fob_6.pdf

“For the building to be listed in the National Register, a nomination would need to be prepared by the GSA and submitted to the SHPO,” Edward Giefer, associate director of the D.C. Office of Planning, explained to CNSNews.com, adding that GSA has evaluated the building, but has not yet nominated it.

“The city’s Historic Preservation Review Board would review the nomination and make a recommendation as to whether it met the federal designation criteria.

"The nomination would then be forwarded to the National Register with that recommendation. The National Register makes the final determination as to whether a property meets the federal designation standards," Giefer said.

Also known as Federal Office Building 6 (FOB6), the structure is located two blocks south of the National Mall. Its construction “marked a dramatic stylistic change for federal government buildings and signaled the beginning of a significant shift towards the expression of mid-century architecture in the nation‘s capital,” according to the SHPO report.

The rectangular seven-story building was built on a trapezoid-shaped lot along Maryland Avenue and features a large outdoor plaza and sunken courtyard – “the first example where a Modernist landscape is integrated into the design of a federal office building in Washington, D.C.”

The limestone-veneered structure - “a product of the immense growth of the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s that resulted in the creation of new government agencies” was one of 22 new federal buildings GSA planned for the Washington region in 1956.

“Significantly, FOB 6 was a key component of the Southwest [DC] Urban Renewal Plan,” SHPO noted.

But Shubow says that the building is a prime example of “ugly” architecture and failed government urban renewal policies that were popular at the time, but have since been discredited.

“They have two reasons [for considering historic designation],” Shubow said. “One is that the building represents the architectural style of the time, which was in fact generic, boxy and ugly.

"The other reason is that it’s tied to a historic moment, which was the federal government’s redevelopment of the southwest quadrant of D.C. It was a prime example of mid-century urban renewal.

“The irony being that that example of urban renewal, not just in America but in D.C., was a massive failure. And so here they are saying, well, this building represents this historic moment that was terrible.

“Likewise when they say that the building represents its architectural time period, well, the architectural time period was also bad. And they don’t acknowledge that any historic period can have resulted in unpleasant and unliked buildings,” Shubow told CNSNews.com.

 “Not only do I disagree with the push to put it on the National Register, I would like to see the building torn down and replaced,” he added, 

Shubow pointed out that a National Register listing “makes it more difficult to make alterations to it and also affects development in the neighborhood.

“So one of the results could be the encouragement of building other Modernist buildings around it, as opposed to beautiful, inspiring classical buildings - the sorts of buildings we all associate with Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Shubow also said that it is increasingly unlikely that the controversial Frank Gehry-designed memorial to honor former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which his group and some members of the Eisenhower family oppose, will be built in the District despite getting final approval from the National Capital Planning Commission last year.

“In its budget for the 2016 fiscal year, Congress for the third year in a row zeroed all construction funds for the memorial. In other words, they are completely halting the design yet again, and they are keeping the Eisenhower Memorial Commission on life support,” he said, adding that the commission has been unsuccessful in raising private donations.

“It’s a battle of attrition, and every day it appears that Gehry’s design is likely to finally be killed,” he said.

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