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Will B.F. Saul Gut the Historic Kennedy-Warren Apartments?

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Gutted?

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10/24/2008

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Central tower of the Kennedy-Warren. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.A January 28, 2008, Washington Post article revealed that the B.F. Saul Company plans extensive renovations to the historic Kennedy-Warren apartments affecting both the hallways and apartment interiors in the original building. Although the Post article dealt primarily with a rent strike waged by the Kennedy-Warren Residents Association, it also mentioned specific architectural elements that might be lost as a result of the planned renovations.

This article details what ADSW has learned about the planned renovations and the initial steps it has taken to help ensure that the building will not be gutted. Dana Ott, Ira Raskin, Linda Lyons, and Jim Linz collaborated on preparation of this article. All photographs copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

About the Kennedy-Warren

Designed in the Aztec Deco style by architect Joseph Younger, the Kennedy-Warren opened with 317 apartments in 1931. The original owners and builders, Edgar S. Kennedy and Monroe Warren, Sr., filed for bankruptcy soon after the building was completed and B.F. Saul obtained the rights to the building. A rear wing was added in 1935 under the direction of super-vising architect Alexander H. Sonnemann.

Although a second wing was included in Younger’s original plans, and some foundation footings were prepared in the 1930s, it was not until 1996 that the B.F. Saul Company pursued plans to complete the Kennedy-Warren as originally envisioned by Joseph Younger.

In describing the original Kennedy-Warren building, a November 1996 Trans-Lux article noted that “…the exterior of reveals a wealth of Art Deco details from the top of the pyramidal tower roof on down, much of it with an Aztec flavor.” The article goes on to praise the wealth of interior details, noting “…inside, aluminum, sometimes combined with bronze, is used extensively in the fine balustrades, elevator doors and even apartment door peepholes and knockers.”

Kennedy-Warren apartment peephole and name holder. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby. Kennedy-Warren apartment doorplate. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

Also noted was that the Kennedy-Warren featured one of the earliest ex-amples of a forced air cooling system. The system, still in use, collects cool air from the lower Rock Creek Park side of the building and circulates it throughout the building. As part of the forced air system, an air vent is located above the entry door to each apartment.

Air vent over Kennedy-Warren apartment door. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

Another novel feature of the Kennedy-Warren apartments is the milk shafts. Each unit in the historic wings has a small compartment between the hallway and the kitchen with doors on both the interior and exterior. The milkman would open the door in the hallway to leave milk and other dairy products. The tenant could retrieve the goods by opening the door in the kitchen.

Compartment in wall between Kennedy-Warren apartment and hall allowed deliveries of milk and similar supplies. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

Former tenants of the historic Kennedy-Warren apartments include Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, former White House aide and Watergate figure H.R. Haldeman, author P.J. O’Roarke, and the wives of 29 generals serving overseas during World War II.

As many of you may remember, ADSW aided B.F. Saul’s efforts to win approval for construction of the new south wing in 1996, writing a letter of support to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. The new South Wing was completed and opened in 2002.

B.F. Saul did a careful replication of the exterior of the original building in the new construction and a meticulous restoration of the main lobby. However, the interior elements of the Art Deco style seen in the corridors and apartments of the original building were not carried forward in the design of the interior corridors and apartments in the new south wing. For example, even the door knockers in the south wing are not in the Art Deco style.

Board Members Visit the Kennedy-Warren

A historic building is ultimately the sum of its parts, both interior and exterior. ADSW is concerned that the renovation plans noted in the Post article could result in the transformation of the remainder of the interior, including the hallways, individual apartments, and spectacular Art Deco Ballroom into a generic contemporary style that would contrast with the period restoration of the main lobby.

Several ADSW Board Members toured the building to get a better idea both of the current condition of the building and the potential effects of the planned renovations on the historic structure. Our tour both heightened our concerns about the hallways and individual apartments, and added a new area of concern—the future of the ballroom.

Subsequently, ADSW’s Board of Directors decided to seek a meeting with B.F. Saul to discuss our concerns and possible solutions. The remainder of this article discusses ADSW’s concerns in more detail. As of March 25, 2008, B.F. Saul had neither responded to our request for a meeting nor provided comments on this article.

Apartment Interiors Could be Gutted

Entering the individual apartments in the original building is like opening a time capsule. The units are largely unchanged from the day the Kennedy-Warren opened its doors in 1931, having the original hardwood floors, bathroom fixtures and ceramic tile, and Hoosier-style kitchen cabinets. The high ceilings, curved archways, thick plaster walls, and wide wood moldings instantly return the visitor to the ambiance of the Art Deco era.

Kitchen cabinets in Kennedy-Warren apartment. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby. Ceramic tile and tub in a Kennedy-Warren apartment. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

Although some changes were made through the years, such as replacement of kitchen appliances and countertops, kitchens could be returned to their 1930s look easily and economically. For example, damaged kitchen floors could be replaced with linoleum, once again widely available and having the benefit of being a “green” product. The kitchen appliances could be replaced with newer models designed to evoke the look of the 1930s. The original countertops could be replicated.

By contrast, the Washington Post article on the proposed renovations indicates that apartment floor plans will be changed and that there will be “upgrades consistent with new buildings….” This suggests that the existing apartments might be gutted, with removal of existing original features, such as hardwood and ceramic flooring, plumbing fixtures, kitchen cabinets, and some, if not all, of the original plaster walls.

ADSW has requested a meeting with B.F. Saul management to discuss our concerns and explore options for modernizing the building without destroy-ing important parts of its history. Among the issues ADSW wants to discuss are:

  • What alternatives were considered before the current plan was adopted?
  • Will all apartments in the original building be renovated?
  • How extensive are the planned renovations?
  • What efforts are being made to retain the ambiance of the original apartments?

Architectural Details in Corridors May Be Lost

The Washington Post article suggested that many architectural elements in the corridors, such as the Art Deco door knockers, milk shafts, and forced-air vents, may be removed as part of the renovations.

Following on from the concerns listed above, the ADSW wants to determine what efforts B.F. Saul will make to retain the architectural integrity of the corridors. For example:

  • Will the Art Deco door knockers be retained?
  • Will the Art Deco designs in the ceiling arches be retained?
  • What will happen to such elements as the milk shafts and the forced-air vents over the doorways?
  • Will the hallways be shortened or narrowed?
  • Will the original doors be retained?
  • Will the current mismatched lighting fixtures be replaced with Art Deco-style fixtures of uniform design that replicate the original fixtures?

Decorative details in Kennedy-Warren hallways. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

Condition/Future of Ballroom an Added Concern

One area of continued concern that was not discussed in the Post article is the future of the Ballroom. As architectural historian James Goode points out in his book, Best Addresses, the Kennedy-Warren was one of the few apartment buildings constructed in the Washington, D.C. area to have a ballroom. Many of our members have fond memories of Art Deco Balls held at the Kennedy-Warren more than two decades ago and the periodic performances by Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra in the 1980s.

ADSW is particularly concerned about the possible effects of the planned renovations on the Ballroom. The Ballroom has not been used for many years and is in disrepair, suffering from years of neglect. At least two areas of serious decay are clearly visible in the ceiling. Specific issues related to the Ballroom include:

  • How does the Ballroom fit into the overall renovation plans?
  • What steps will B.F. Saul take to repair existing damage and ensure that further damage will not result from renovations to the floors above?
  • Will the Ballroom be restored, as James Goode indicated in the latest edition of Best Addresses, or converted to some other use?

Water damage in Kennedy-Warren ballroom. Copyright 2008 by Matt Crosby.

The Ballroom, if restored and put back into use, could once again serve as an asset to residents, while simultaneously helping to attract new residents. For example, ADSW’s bi-monthly film restoration series at the Charles Sumner School could be moved to the Ballroom. This would provide a benefit to Kennedy-Warren residents and help market the Kennedy-Warren to other attendees.

Throughout all of its 25 years, ADSW has actively promoted the Kennedy-Warren as one of the Washington area’s architectural gems. For years, the Kennedy-Warren has been a popular stop on our annual tour of Washington’s Art Deco architecture. In 2005, when ADSW hosted Decophiles from around the world before the Eighth World Congress on Art Deco, two bus-loads of international visitors stared in amazement at the incredible restoration of the lobby. Pictures of its magnificent restoration were shared with Decophiles around the world. But while our international visitors recognized the grandeur that once was in the ballroom, they were saddened by its decay and disuse. Wouldn’t it be nice to report to Decophiles around the world that B.F. Saul will restore the Ballroom with the same careful attention given to the lobby.

Demand for “Original” Apartments Exists

Although real estate agents and home improvement television programs frequently urge sellers to “update” their kitchens and baths to facilitate a sale, many Decophiles are purists, preferring to live in homes and apartments that have not been altered over time. For these individuals, finding a house or apartment with its original kitchen cabinets, tile bathrooms, and plumbing fixtures is more important than central air-conditioning, dishwashers, or granite countertops. The historic wing of the Kennedy-Warren offers such Decophiles a rare opportunity to live in an unspoiled building, and ADSW believes that authentic apartments in the Kennedy-Warren would find a market among them.

Conclusions

In ADSW’s opinion, the planned renovations could essentially turn what has been for almost 80 years Washington’s most famous apartment building, into yet another façade project, stripped of almost all interior architectural elements beyond the lobby. We are hopeful that the B.F. Saul Company can be convinced to ensure that the historic parts of the Kennedy-Warren remain one of Washington’s “Best Addresses.”

ADSW encourages it members and friends to write to the B.F. Saul Company to voice your concerns about the planned renovations. Letters should be addressed to

B. Francis Saul II
B. F. Saul Company
7501 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1500
Bethesda, MD 20814-6522

You can also contact B.F. Saul by email at http://www.bfsaul.com/contact.html

We also encourage you to become actively involved in ADSW’s efforts by contacting us at preservation@adsw.org.

This article originally appeared in Trans-Lux volume 26, number 1, Winter 2008.

Help Save the Kennedy-Warren Interior

Your tax deductible contribution will help the Art Deco Society of Washington fight to save the Kennedy-Warren interior.


Created Thursday, October 30, 2008; Modified Tuesday, November 11, 2008.