Harbour Square: A Modernist Jewel of Southwest DC Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

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Harbour Square includes gardens on several levels and features a one-acre sculptural water garden.

Harbour Square, named to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 2013 and included in the National Register of Historic Places, recently held a two-month-long celebration of its 50th anniversary. The complex has been home to a number of famous Washington residents, most notably Senator and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who lived there from 1966 until his death in 1978. His apartment was the site of numerous political meetings and media events, and the Humphreys attended community events in the Harbour Square club room. Supreme Court Justices Lewis M. Powell and David Souter also made Harbour Square their home, as did numerous senators and representatives – and some still do.

The text and photos for this article are taken largely from the landmark nomination document prepared by Peter Sefton, an architectural historian who specializes in Washington’s historic resources.

The Redevelopment of Southwest DC
Harbour Square was built as part of an effort to revitalize the city. By the 1950s there were essentially two Washingtons, the richer Northwest and the rest of the city. Southwest DC had functional neighborhoods with good building stock, but it also had the highest concentration of “slumlike” housing in the city. Federal officials, who then as now had much control over the city, decided to fix the problem through massive demolition and rebuilding from scratch – also known as urban renewal.

Harbour Square was designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith; developed by Shannon & Luchs, then one of Washington’s oldest and largest realtors; constructed by John McShain Inc., a prolific Washington building company whose projects include the Pentagon, State Department, and Jefferson Memorial; and marketed by Edmund G. Flynn, a real estate company that introduced cooperative ownership to Washington in 1920.

Smith and Kiley
Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Daniel Urban Kiley were principals in the reimagining of Southwest. Smith was an eminent early modernist architect and urban planner. In 1970 Life magazine called her one of the “Eight Women Who Made It [in a Man’s World].”

In 1959 she prepared a plan for the Southwest Waterfront that divided the area south of M Street (called Area C) into east and west superblocks, to be further subdivided for development by separate builders. She also recommended reserving the riverbank for parks, preserving all the trees, and linking the area to the Mall’s edge with public transit.

Harbour Square was her second new project for Southwest, the first being Capitol Park Tower at Third and G streets, whose first section, today’s Potomac Place, was completed in 1959. Her plans for both developments centered around a superblock, which was an approach to urban design intended to separate vehicular from pedestrian traffic and provide large interior green spaces. Harbour Square epitomized the superblock, covering an entire city block on a prime site directly on the waterfront at Maine Avenue and N Street.

After completing Harbour Square, Smith established a national practice with commissions all over the country, including other projects in Washington, ranging from design work in the planned community of Reston to a prominent downtown intersection of office buildings dubbed Chloethiel’s Corner at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW.

For both Capitol Park and Harbour Square, Smith collaborated with Daniel Urban Kiley, who was perhaps landscape architecture’s most acclaimed modernist. Kiley designed a number of important landscapes around the country during the 1940s and 1950s, including the landscape for Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, Ind., which may be the most influential private garden design of the 20th century. In 1956 he created his first design for the Southwest redevelopment area, a master site plan for public parks prepared for Saterlee and Smith (Smith’s firm at that time).

Development and Historic Preservation
While modernist in its superblock site design and building materials of concrete and glass, Harbour Square incorporates seven historic landmarks. Wheat Row is comprised of four row houses along Fourth Street constructed in 1794 by James Greenleaf, who was one of Washington’s earliest and most controversial developers. The 1817 Lewis House at 456 N St., named for its first resident, Edward Simon Lewis, later became a settlement house established by Charles and Eugenia Weller. The 1794 Duncanson-Cranch houses at 468-470 N St. were combined in 1905 to become a larger facility for the settlement house when the buildings were purchased by Washington artist and philanthropist Alice Barney.

With the inclusion of Wheat Row, Lewis House, and Barney House, Harbour Square became Washington’s earliest example of incorporating historic landmark buildings into a larger development. Unlike the “facadism” often seen today, Smith preserved entire buildings instead of just the facades and a few feet of the interior. Harbour Square’s years of construction literally stretch from 1795 to 1966.

The design beautifully weaves together the elegant historic brick townhouses, new brick townhouses, and multifamily buildings of concrete and glass. The large size of the seven historic townhouses necessitated building the new townhouses larger than what was currently being built, and their 10½-foot ceilings helped set the tone of spacious luxury that Edmund J. Flynn wanted to create.

Building and Landscape Design
Harbour Square was designed as a quadrangle-shaped project with buildings of varying heights. It contains 430 units with 134 different floor plans and five types of balconies. The orientation of the buildings leaves the site open to the riverfront. The apartments have beautiful views of the river or of the gardens, including a one-acre sculptural water garden that is the site’s dominant design element.

Kiley designed six primary garden areas as well as several smaller ones scattered through the site and along the surrounding streets. The primary gardens are the Entrance Garden, the East Garden, the Water Garden, the South Water Garden, the Dogwood Allee, and the Great Lawn. Kiley designed with a strong sense of geometry and created planes that allow residents to view gardens on several levels as they move through the complex.

Roof decks command unique views of the Washington Channel, the Potomac River, Virginia, and downtown Washington. Many top-floor units have private roof decks. The decks offer a place for quiet contemplation and celebratory gatherings – the fireworks views from the large roof decks being unrivaled. (Rooftop water View)

 

Donna Hanousek is a zoning specialist by day and historic preservationist by night who owns a very small part of Harbour Square. The text and photos were taken largely from the landmark nomination document prepared by Peter Sefton, an architectural historian who specializes in Washington’s historic resources.