My Two Cents: WSSC demolition – stitching the neighborhood back together again

A rendering of the proposed homes fronting Hamilton Street. Image Credit Werrlein Properties.

By WILL SEATH — I am an architectural and urban designer who lives across the street from the WSSC Building that would be levelled for the proposed Magruder Pointe development. I am who I am today because of the demolition of an old building. During my first year in college, my family-owned bar and restaurant, our upstairs apartment, and a half dozen other buildings on our block were torn down to make room for a chain drug store. My neighborhood lost a friendly place for neighbors to gather and unwind, and all it got in return was a stucco-on-Styrofoam box and a parking lot.

This is not a unique story. A decades-long epidemic of ugly, auto-oriented development has spared few places. It has been accompanied by the loss of durable, timeless, human-scaled buildings and public spaces and a culture of building and planning that too often fails to design anything better than it destroys. My experience with such development led me to study traditional architecture and urbanism, and the scale, proportions, order, and details that make our best architecture and urbanism. It instilled in me a conviction that we do not have to settle for either preserving old eyesores or building new ones.

I look out my window at a long-vacant, decaying WSSC Building and read the arguments of those who oppose its demolition and the redevelopment of the site. They are often rooted in a theory of preservation that advocates conserving worthy specimens of past historic architectural styles, but which rarely considers whether these buildings are actually good and beautiful. Preservationists have a record of campaigns to save examples of Brutalism (an architectural style as dreadful as it sounds), against the wishes of property owners and institutions seeking to remedy the ugliness and sky-high maintenance costs of their own buildings. Taken to its logical extreme, historic preservation turns living neighborhoods into sterile museums of style.

This is the danger of the exaggerated claims of the WSSC Building’s architectural importance – which include misleading claims about the property’s status on the National Register of Historic Places. Aside from the Art Deco portal of the original building – the building’s only modestly pleasing element – the bulk of the complex is an unremarkable sample of Mid-Century Modernism that has aged poorly (To Werrlein Properties’ credit, they intend to reuse the portal as a site feature of the new development). It is hardly a sterling example of the best that either Art Deco or Modernism can offer. Its features are ill-proportioned, and it is an unfriendly mass, out-of-scale and out-of-character with its surroundings. If the Hyattsville Preservation Association took seriously its own claim that the WSSC is “architecturally noteworthy,” then it ought to organize educational tours of the site so that the lessons of this valuable neighborhood asset may be better appreciated.

The American historic preservation movement was galvanized by the thoughtless demolition of the noble and monumental Pennsylvania Station and its replacement with a soulless catacomb in the mid-1960s – just after the completion of the last expansion of the WSSC. That phase of the WSSC construction required the demolition of several homes which contributed to the human scale, graceful character, and walkability of the neighborhood in ways that the WSSC never could. One wonders if an organized preservation movement then might have vociferously opposed the very same building that local preservationists now rally to save.

The single-family homes, townhouses, and pedestrian connections to Magruder Park in Werrlein’s proposal would restore the scale, character, and walkability of the pre-WSSC site, stitching back together the surrounding neighborhood blocks. It is not an experiment on the neighborhood, as some have argued. The designs show a clear understanding of time-honored residential forms, proportions, and durable materials. They are far from the pastiche approach of McMansion development and are an improvement on Werrlein’s own recent construction in Hyattsville. The proposed development, once realized, would ultimately preserve what really matters in a neighborhood: not a meaningless preoccupation with architectural style no matter how unfeasible, but the very meaningful concern for places built for people.

Will Seath is a Hyattsville resident and a Project Architect with McCrery Architects in Washington, D.C.

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