Healy Hall and Lauinger Library, visible from both the Key Bridge and the front gates of Georgetown University, are what first come to mind when the words “Georgetown” and “architecture” are put together. It is in these buildings, after all, where students congregate to study, attend class and listen to some of the world’s most noteworthy policymakers.
Yet, Healy Hall and Lau are exceptions to the neighborhood’s architectural design. Lined with colorful townhouses and aged brick buildings, Georgetown’s incomparable charm keeps tourist rates and property prices high, but the area’s architecture has more to offer than aesthetic pleasure. Resisting current pressures to build impersonal glass-and-steel high-rises, Georgetown’s commitment to the preservation of its older architecture allows the community to stay close to the neighborhood’s roots.
The distinctive design of the neighborhood sets Georgetown apart from residential Burleith to the north and urban Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle to the east.
“It is a very uniquely built environment because it is the oldest part of the city,” said Thomas Luebke of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees new construction and advises the federal government on matters of design and aesthetics in Washington, D.C.
The houses of Georgetown stand out not only because of their brick and stone facades but also because of the way the buildings are arranged.
“The facades of the houses come right to the back of the sidewalk, which is pretty common in the colonial period,” said Jonathan Fitch, a local landscape architect who has worked on projects in Georgetown.
Houses are built very close together as well, completely filling the relatively small plots of expensive property.
“So, basically, there are no front yards, and that makes a huge difference,” Fitch said.
As for its roads, Georgetown’s extensive network of cobblestone and brick harkens back to an era before asphalt and concrete. Georgetown was founded as a town in 1751 — before the creation of the District of Columbia — and the longest continuously named street in D.C., Water Street, can be found in the neighborhood.
Although many of Georgetown’s streets have been repaved and remade with other materials, its eccentric sidewalks are still largely composed of brick laid on earth.
“[The brick is] not laid on a concrete slab, and it gets sort of water jawed; that contributes to the aged character of Georgetown,” Fitch said. “Over time the pitter-patter of little feet compacts the earth differentially under the sidewalk, so parts of it settle a little more than others, so you get a lumpy character.”
These features did not spontaneously coalesce in the neighborhood but follow instead from a concerted preservation effort by the federal government.
The creation of the Georgetown Historic District in 1950 – the first such historic district in Washington, and just the sixth in the United States – cemented Georgetown’s status as an architecturally significant destination worthy of preservation.
That same year, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act, which conferred the responsibility of reviewing most exterior construction in the neighborhood to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. This legislation places strict limits on what Georgetown University can build, heavily influencing the character of campus.
Georgetown: From Colonial to Contemporary
Georgetown developed its iconic look from an evolution through several periods. The first construction in Georgetown took place shortly after its foundation as a town in the early 1750s. As a settlement on the Potomac River it was immediately absorbed into the vast network of transatlantic trade that defined the colonial period.
Georgetown’s heritage as a port has had a long-lasting effect on its buildings and its ambiance.
“Georgetown always had very much a working waterfront character. It is a very important part of its history,” Luebke said.
Architects refer to this period as colonial. Today, almost nothing aside from the layout of the streets survives.
“There is a kind of an idea that Georgetown has this colonial history and that the architecture goes way back,” Luebke said. “The truth is, there is very little from the 18th century that survives.”
Georgetown’s look derives a great deal more from the Federal era, which stretches from the late 1790s through the 1830s, than from the Colonial period, according to Luebke. This era gave rise to the design of the classic, flat-fronted brick houses seen throughout the neighborhood. It also saw the first constructions on Georgetown University’s campus.
Although this period’s architecture defines one part of Georgetown’s style, construction and development continued after the end of the Federal period.
“So much of the Georgetown area and the Georgetown era is actually the Victorian era,” Luebke said.
The Victorian era saw the construction of many of Georgetown’s most notable buildings and features. The construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began at the very end of the Federal period but was largely built during the Victorian era, and the canal was fully completed in 1850. It cost more than $11 million and connected the Potomac in DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania.
Healy Hall, Georgetown’s flagship building, was also built between 1877 and 1879, though it is in the medieval Flemish Romanesque style rather than the Victorian. Its architects Paul Pelz and John Smithmeyer also designed the Library of Congress. Healy Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Development continued into the 20th century, especially along the waterfront.
“The newer projects tend to draw on the industrial heritage of the waterfront and the canal,” Luebke said. “And often from the early 20th century.”
The Victorian-influenced Dumbarton Oaks, which features vast gardens designed by the famous horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll, also took its current form in the 1920s and 1930s. Large sections of Georgetown retained a Federal look, but the area was by no means stagnant.
In 1950, the situation changed with the Public Law 808, an act of Congress establishing the district of “Old Georgetown.” The law safeguards the historical style of the neighborhood, including the university campus, by requiring the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to be consulted for any alteration or construction within the historic district. Official policy has frequently looked to the past for inspiration, even during the height of modernist architecture.
Despite the influence of history on Georgetown’s modern architecture, a tension persists in the neighborhood between the sleek designs of contemporary construction and the historical image of the Federal era. To this day, Georgetown stands in contrast to the endemic modernism of downtown Washington, D.C., and the grand neoclassicism of government buildings such as the White House and the Supreme Court building.
However, there are notable exceptions to Georgetown’s Federal and Victorian style. Lau embodies Brutalism with its exposed concrete and bulky, imposing form. Opened in 1970, it was designed by John Carl Warnecke as a counterpart to Healy Hall, even as financial struggles rocked Georgetown University.
The House of Sweden on the waterfront offers a postmodern counterpoint to Georgetown’s historicism as well. Inaugurated in 2006, the building houses the embassies of Sweden and Iceland. It was designed by the internationally renowned Gert Wingardh and received the Kasper Salin Prize, the national architecture prize of Sweden, in 2007.
Georgetown’s alluring ambiance is not the product of one flurry of development, or even a few famous buildings. Rather, the neighborhood is the product of centuries of construction and destruction that continues in the modern day.
“It actually has more variety than a lot of the areas,” Luebke said. “It has the most variety over the largest historic span.”
The Federal-era buildings that exemplify the neighborhood’s style survive not because of a successful embalming but conscious and concerted redevelopment and careful attention to aesthetics within the Georgetown Historic District by the Commission of Fine Arts.
Today, the CFA oversees any alterations, demolitions or constructions within the Georgetown Historic District through an appointed committee of three architects known as the Old Georgetown Board. As a result, any project undertaken at Georgetown University – from the installation of solar panels in university townhouses to the construction of the new surgical pavilion at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital – must be approved by the OGB at its monthly meeting.
In the past, the OGB has played a significant role in determining the design of new structures at Georgetown. In 2013, the panel objected to the hard edges of the plan for a new study space on campus, resulting in modifications to lighting, landscape continuity and structural elements to soften elements of the design plan for the Healey Family Student Center, completed in 2014.
Without these regulations, the rich collection of Colonial, Federal and Victorian architectural styles in the Georgetown neighborhood might have been replaced by homogenous modern development. Today, the distinctive look continues to delight residents and visitors while reminding us of the region’s roots.
“[Georgetown has] a certain kind of small-scale charm that is simply not available in other places,” Fitch said. “It is lovely, and on top of that, it is genteel.”