If you go to Gordon Kitt's house, he may invite you to take a bath. The retired patent attorney will explain that that place is the best place to understand an important reason why he has earned the historic title for his house in the past four years. When you look out through the bathroom window, you can clearly see the nearby plot where a cream-colored behemoth is being built.
That colonial-style house is replacing the 1960s house that once occupied this space. It is a mid-century modern building with glass walls and a swimming pool reminiscent of Palm Springs. But then its owner passed away and the developer razed it to the ground. Kitt is determined to avoid his mid-century modern style in DC Palisades suffering the same fate. "If you look around, all these old houses have been demolished and they built mansions-these unattractive things," he said.
Of course, in a city known for its gorgeous Victorian townhouses and magnificent neoclassical buildings, many people will cast similar contempt for Kitt's house. However, in the past year or two, buildings in the mid-century have become more and more popular, and more and more architecture enthusiasts like clean lines and low silhouettes.
At the same time, they continue to be demolished. Several other DC houses of the architect who designed the Kit House—the acclaimed modernist Jean-Pierre Trouchaud—have been destroyed. The house that was once located next door to Kit's was designed by a famous company called Dietgert and Yerkes. On the street, the 1950s modern style that once appeared in Better Homes & Gardens was destroyed a few years ago. In Forest Hills, Brown & Wright’s mid-century modern building-Washington's first racially integrated construction company-was bulldozed and replaced by a 17,000-square-foot limestone villa that is currently on the market at 1,200 square feet. Sold at a price of ten thousand dollars.
Therefore, Kit has good reasons to seek protection for his home. At first, he didn't know what to do; the process of obtaining the historical title was complicated and a bit opaque. So he asked the Washington DC government for help. At that time, he got in touch with a woman named Kim Williams, who proved to be anxious to accept what she thought was an urgent task: to save these underrated homes throughout the area.
The description of Williams' work-the architectural historian of the DC Office of Historic Preservation-is reminiscent of images of red brick and white marble, and these pre-war buildings are usually preserved. She has worked in the district government for 20 years, first as a contractor and then as a full-time employee. Her current responsibilities as the city’s national registration coordinator include assisting homeowners seeking historical status and working to obtain local landmarks to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. She tends to deal with buildings built before many current DC residents were born.
But Williams also likes to arrange in-depth research projects for himself. This is where the medieval modernism comes in. A few years ago, she was interested in documenting these houses for the first time, when she was working on another project and noticed the concentration of medieval modernism in the upper-level neighborhoods of the Northwest Territories. She said the building is unique, "but they have not been recognized in any official capacity."
At about the same time, Gordon Kit contacted her. Williams has only received an inquiry from the owner of a modern car in the middle of the century, and this was more than ten years ago. "I'm very excited about this," she said. "I know we are losing these types of houses, and I know [Kit's] houses will help us understand them better." She linked him to the DC Conservation League, a non-profit organization that can apply for him to have In-depth research is required for the landmark status.
Williams also became curious. Soon after, she decided to start producing a database—the first attempt in the area to investigate the stock of modern housing in the middle of this century. She hopes to create a case that proves that many people deserve the same protection as the Wardman Townhouse, the Beaux-Arts mansion in Kalorama, and other types of residences that are more generally considered landmarks in Washington. All modern people in the middle of the century now meet DC's 25-year-old minimum age requirement to qualify as historical figures, and most of them meet national requirements, usually 50 years old.
Williams' process technology is very low. She used archived building permits and city tax records to isolate houses built between the 1940s and 70s, then went to Google Maps and called up Street View. This method will produce a lot of false positives-post-war colonial revival and pasture are not what she wants. But there are still many exciting discoveries, such as when her part-time intern-the only other staff member who helped with the research-sent her a list of modern houses for sale near MacArthur Avenue. When Williams inserted it into Google Maps and zoomed out, she saw that it was surrounded by nine others-this is entirely the development of modern people in the middle of the century.
So far, Williams' investigation has included more than 230 addresses. Some people were already familiar with her before she started this project, such as the two houses on Chain Bridge Road by Walter Gropius, founder of the world-famous Bauhaus school, and Clotier Design. Woodard Smith, one of Washington’s most important modernists (and a rare woman in this field). But Williams has now added dozens more, most of which have not received any recognition at all.
Although Williams initially focused on the Upper Northwest Territories, she has since expanded her search to Brookland in the Northeast, another neighborhood full of modernism—most of which were designed by professors in the Department of Architecture at Howard University. of.
Williams has found eight modern Brookland houses designed by black architects, including several designed by Robert Madison. Before moving to Washington, Madison was the first black architect licensed in Ohio. Howard hired him as a professor in the 1950s, and he also began his personal practice. "Not many black architects go out alone," said Madison, now 98. Build a house for yourself. "
Madison recalled designing about six modern homes locally, most of them in Brookland (Williams has found three of them) and a few in the Northwest Territories (she hasn't found yet). Madison said the commission came from a development company owned by a black man who hired him to build a standard house: "They want something completely different."
After studying with Walter Gropius at Harvard University and with Le Corbusier in Paris, Madison was very happy to deviate from the traditional aesthetic of DC. He also designed public buildings, such as the Church of the Savior Presbyterian in Brookland. After returning to Ohio, he founded another company that participated in large-scale projects such as the Cleveland Browns stadium and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his DC job is still a meaningful part of his career. "These houses are the first completed projects I designed," he said. Even so, they may be demolished at any time—unless the homeowner decides to put in work to preserve them.
For the DC House to be declared historic—that is, to be permanently protected from bulldozers—you must follow a series of steps. First, determine whether it meets the basic criteria (which can fluctuate from one community to another). Next, conduct a study of the application requirements, including understanding the architect and past residents of the house, understanding how it fits into the wider history of its community, and clarifying what makes the design so important. Finally, a convincing case is submitted to the city’s historical preservation review committee, which is an official outpost and its members make the final decision. If your house has won a local designation, then the DC Office of Historic Preservation can choose to include it on the National Register of Historic Places, which is an honorary recognition that does not provide any additional protection.
However, people who want to put historical names on modern homes face a special challenge: Although the officials in charge of the application understand the background of evaluating federal or Victorian architecture, they do not yet have such a framework to judge mid-century modernity.
Williams’ investigation is designed to compensate for this, by allowing conservationists to understand how to assess whether modern houses are worthy of protection: for example, does the use of materials or the way in which indoors and outdoors are integrated are generally in line with the spirit of DC? Mid-century modernism? (Houses can also be labeled as historical because their architects or owners are well-known to some extent, which is another factor she includes in the database.)
Of course, homeowners may not want to own a historic home for good reasons: designating your home as a landmark may limit your ability to renovate, trap you in outdated facilities, and lower the price when it is sold. In theory, conservationists can seek a landmark status for a house without the consent of the owner. But this is not Williams' preferred method of doing business. "I don't want to intervene in this matter in a confrontational way," she said. "We want people who really appreciate mid-century modernism, they really appreciate their houses. The more we can let them appoint their property, the less threat to other people will be.”
Williams said that one of the biggest obstacles to this work is that many owners do not realize the importance of their homes. Eventually-once she is sure that her research is solid enough-she will start writing to tell them where their house is in Washington's history.
Unfortunately, for landmark seekers, obtaining the historical status of a Jetsons-era residence requires some obvious Byzantine paperwork. Just ask Gordon Kitt. Earlier this year, his house officially received the local and national historical title, which means it has been included in the Washington Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. This is only the second modern residence in the area to obtain these two identities. (The first is the William L. Slayton House in Cleveland Park, which is one of only three residences in the world designed by I.M. Pei.)
Kit’s 57-page application details the design of his home, previous owners and architects. After Williams recommended Kitt to the DC Conservation League, the non-profit organization integrated the whole thing free of charge. Otherwise, Kit said, he would have to spend thousands of dollars to hire his own architectural historian.
Kit’s path to preservation has a lot to do with the non-architectural history of this house. It was built in 1957 by David Bazelon, who soon became the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC. Bazelon sold it to Democratic Senator George McGovern, who owned it from 1969 to 1980, including his running for president. Kitt knew about the former owner, partly because he found McGovern’s campaign posters and other personal belongings when he moved in. The impressive past residents are just another reason why he really wants to protect this place.
Of course, not every house has this pedigree, so Williams hopes that her research will help convince the review committee and the public that this kind of architecture is aesthetically worthy of preservation. After all, Williams himself had to be persuasive. The part of Chevy Chase where she and her architect husband live is full of mid-century modern houses, but she admits that it took her a while to get used to this look. "My appreciation for them is increasing day by day," she said. "They are old. I am old. Our views will change over time."
To contact the DC Office of History Preservation about your own mid-century modern residence, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published in Washingtonian Magazine in November 2021.
Marisa M. Kashino joined the Washingtonian as a staff writer in 2009 and became a senior editor in 2014. She is responsible for overseeing the magazine's real estate and home design coverage and writing long-form feature stories. She is a finalist for the 2020 Livingston Award because she conducted a two-part investigation into a false conviction in a murder case in rural Virginia.