Among the more controversial results of arbitration during urban redevelopment is the retention of a building façade, while demolishing everything that comes behind it because, presumably, the layout, traditional use, and possibly even the entire floorplate fail to meet contemporary needs. The growing practice of façadectomy has entered the general development parlance, though the closet etymologist in me hates this; after all, isn’t that word implying that it is the façade that is being removed?
Putting the incorrect suffix aside, historic preservationists have amplified their criticism in recent years of this practice. As Michael Lewis put it in a 2002 New York Times article:
“It is no coincidence that this innovation, which treats a building as graphic art, appeared in the heyday of Pop Art. But in its blithe indifference to the real essence of architecture, which is the poetic shaping of space, such a flaying is scarcely preferable to demolition. It leaves the image of the building, but not the building itself. They are to real buildings as dentures are to teeth.” By the same token, other theorists—generally from a more pro-development vantage point—assert that façadectomies assume no more or less of a cavalier attitude to design than the individuals who originally conceived these structures, since the office buildings of the turn of the 20th century (which often now face threat of the wrecking ball) were little more than warehouses for commerce with a carefully conceived, meretricious exterior.
Inevitably, this process, which both developers and historians originally may have perceived as a last resort, has become a facile solution and sometimes even a knee-jerk response. It may easily satisfy the grassroots citizenry who want a great old building to survive, so that the only ones left wagging their fingers are professional preservationists—alas, never a group given the respect they often deserve in a nation whose prerogative often leans more toward continued redefinition by building anew. When the neighbors are happy because the essence of the building survives (as embodied by the façade) it gives the developers free reign to take liberties with the remaining 99% of the structure, resulting in some ungainly liberties with massing, scale, building material, and details. This proposed façadectomy of the original
Instead, I show two particularly idiosyncratic—one might say cynical—examples of what appear to be façadectomies. The one below is at
The picture dates from July of 2008. Hopefully a DCist who lived there longer than I did can tell me if this portion of the building has evolved beyond this stage, though it showed no evidence of a stalled project: the entrance on 9th Street is clearly up and running. This effort looks to me as though, after the initial façade preservation, the builders surrounded the remaining structure with a molding and filled it with plaster of Paris, then used draftsman’s tools to trace the remaining missing features: window treatments, doorways, transoms. And they painted the space above the spartan Romanesque structure a soft blue—the sky, apparently. It almost makes the viewer forget that the only real doors are service gates for unloading merchandise, and the only other real apertures are the vents at the far left and far right of the picture. It looks like a work in progress, and unless the architect or developer was trying to making a witty postmodernist statement on the delicate temporality of urban reinvention, the message connoted here is unclear without being tantalizingly nebulous. Most passersby scarcely notice it; it has the same effect of one of the many street-level blank walls in redeveloped urban environments all across the country.
This façadectomy in the heart of one of
All that stands are the façades, with girders holding them upright under which the less superstitious pedestrians stroll along. Behind at least one is a patio seating and a small stage for live music.
Stepping back a bit, one can see effectively the result of a more intact main street through the retention of the façade, though the girders are more than a minor distraction:
Lacking the development insight of an insider and unable to find verifiable data on what actually happened (only hearsay), I can only infer (the real point of this blog, actually). Perhaps it was a redevelopment effort that stalled, where the façadectomy was part of the plan but financing fell through. Maybe. But someone had the money to shell out for the interior patio—chump change compared to an actual building, I know, but financing shouldn’t be difficult on the most pedestrian-rich street in
Clearly the building to the right involves some degree of façadectomy: it would be impossible to fit a flight of stairs and a usable space on what survives of the third floor. The landowner retained the façade and took complete artistic license with everything behind it. Perhaps this is a noble effort when placed into the context of the building’s neighbors, which are either infill because the original structures were demolished, or the façades have been altered to such an extent from their 19th century origins that they no longer bear any passing resemblance to the three-story façade still standing.
To its credit, Beale Street in
Several blocks away, a façadectomy stands that may actually achieve a multi-dimensional expressive content that most other attempts lack: the National Civil Rights Museum retains part of the Lorraine Motel façade, including the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. Lacking any largely agreed upon architectural merit, the motel’s earned its historic import solely as the site of this tragic event.
The majority of the motel was demolished for a total redevelopment into the museum, giving the visitor the chance to see a replica of King’s hotel room, and to view out upon the balcony where the assassination took place. This façadectomy injected literal semantic content for educational purposes—some may argue it sensationalizes or even trivializes the event by integrating it into a museum which ultimately serves as a major tourist attraction, but it shows an understanding of the employment of façadectomy for memorializing purposes, and it avoids merely embalming and petrifying a certain vague character. Although the doors and windows of the museum do not typically align with the original openings in the Lorraine Motel, the communicative intent of this museum/hotel façade combination is precise.
A defense attorney would likely have a field day with this argument I have made, because the evidence I have provided against façadectomies at Penn Quarter and Beale Street are outliers, scarcely representative of the more sincere efforts performed elsewhere. But I conclude with a defense of façadectomy, even if flies against the reasoning employed in the photographs. Rather than looking at the nature of preservation integrity, negotiators should focus on the full implications of a compromise—how do we quantify the sacredness of a building such that it cannot be altered. Many historic structures and sites remain so vigilantly preserved that disabled people cannot access them—preservationists determined that the slightest addition of a wheelchair ramp or lift will damage the integrity of the site in question. This hardly promotes the idea of democratizing truly sacred spaces by making them universally accessible. Many structures undergo