New superdorm could face preservation challenges

Experts say the University’s next historic preservation project, which will merge three buildings while maintaining their exterior designs, will be a challenge to pull off.

The massive residence hall, which will combine Crawford and Schenley halls and The West End, will maintain each building’s facade in line with city construction codes. But architects and design experts say the complex preservation process will complicate the construction.

The federal government offers a 20 percent tax return on historic preservation projects – a policy created in 1976 to cut down on some of the high costs associated with preservation – but because GW is a nonprofit, it does not qualify for the potential $260,000 return.

Local architects and experts could not point to another project in the D.C., Maryland or Virginia area that connected three historic buildings into one.

Projects must meet 10 regulations related to the preservation, local architect and adjunct
professor Richard Wagner said, adding that “linking buildings together with new construction is very difficult to do.”

Wagner, who teaches in the historic preservation program, said restoring older buildings is often more expensive than regular construction when old apartment-style buildings, like the halls being merged, are renovated, compared to warehouses that are converted into apartments.

Because historic preservation regulations require another type of exterior surface to be added during construction, Wagner, who works for firm David H. Gleason Associates, Inc., predicted GW would use glass to modernize the building without adding a fourth, domineering surface.

“It’s a case by case basis, but there could be an option to infill with glass,” Wagner said. “That’s the kind of thing that they’re after.”

Historically preserved buildings must undergo a review process before completing zoning with D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office, where there is usually a compromise between the architects’ plans and the board’s desire to ensure that the building is complemented by the changes.

The buildings were built in the mid-1920s and were deemed historic in 2007 when the University made its 20-year Campus Plan.

Director of GW’s Program in Historic Preservation Richard Longstreth said the building will likely use skylights to make the side rooms that don’t receive as much natural light less “dismal.”

“One solution could be sensitive and the other could be terrible. It depends how it’s done,” Longstreth added.

The building’s design by architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, which cost $2.5 million, will not be disclosed until the project goes up for zoning next year. One of the project’s architects Alistair Dearie declined to comment on the building’s design because it has not gone up for zoning yet.

Senior Preservation Specialist for D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office Andrew Lewis did not return requests for comment and was not in the office this week.

The Board of Trustees approved a construction tab this month totaling $130 million, making the building the most expensive and the second largest residence hall on campus. Demolition is slated to begin in June.

Ayers Saint Gross also designed Ivory Tower, Potomac House and Philip Amsterdam Hall.

In 2010, the University gutted Lafayette Hall, another historic building on campus, renovating the rooms while keeping the exterior intact for $9.8 million.

But Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s D.C. office Rob Nieweg said even though historic preservation is more labor intensive, the benefits outweigh the costs.

“It isn’t necessarily more expensive because in effect the University is recycling the existing buildings,” Nieweg said. “It is a benefit to the University and the city by connecting these three buildings. It makes more effective use of these existing resources.”

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