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Architecture Local Reno Park Project Theory

How can Fort Reno’s history come to life?

Fort Reno Park is not a great park. It’s mostly unstructured green space: empty and unpleasant. It does have a great community garden, tennis courts, and two playing fields. But, those uses collectively occupy only a fraction of the land. And they don’t really draw anyone in. Even Fort Reno’s most popular event, the summer concerts, are a lucky accident.

In fact, the only users who really enjoy the park are dogs. The empty fields at Fort Reno are great for letting dogs run free. The only problem is that it’s illegal. Dogs must be on a leash on NPS land. There is just nothing right with Fort Reno Park, is there?

renodogs

Now, it’s easy to spitball amenities to fix the park, but Fort Reno is uniquely charged with history. There’s was a Civil War Fort and then a Black town bound up in its formation. Buried under the grass are vast possibilities to impregnate our lives with history. On the other hand, as more and more residents return to the district, we will really need useful parks.

So, how do you take this kind of site and interpret it while also making it a great urban place?

A recent project in Brooklyn shows us a few ways.

photo copyright nic lehoux

Strategy One: Put a frame on it 

Take a look at the Weeksville Heritage Centerlocated in northeastern Brooklyn. Not so much of an open space as a corner of East New York, the site preserves five houses from a historical Black settlement. Most of Weeksville came down for projects during Urban Renewal, but a tiny portion remained, wedged laterally into a block.

Like Tenleytown, Weeksville was quite some distance away from the city (Brooklyn), but was later absorbed by urbanization. Unlike Tenleytown, none of the roads were converted into the grid, and few of the houses were. Tenleytown used to be two settlements: a largely White area near the Wisconsin-River intersection, and the Black town occupying what is now Fort Reno Park. Very little of both remains.

1907 tenleytown baist s

Weeksville was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by an extension class at the Pratt Institute. Residents were still floating around, but its history was unofficial and uncollected. In the same sense, Tenleytown was rediscovered in the 1970s, as the last people to remember it tried to collect their memories. Weeksville has been slowly doing the same for years.

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Architecture Local

Something old and something new in Southwest

While back in DC recently, I took a look around Southwest DC. There’s much to see, but not much to say. So let me highlight two interesting projects. The first is Hense Brewer’s repainting of the Friendship Baptist Church building behind the old Randall School. I think it’s a pretty cool way to wait out a development project, at the least.

The Randall School itself has been intermittently poised to become a boutique something or another since 2006, when the Corcoran and Monument Realty bought it. Neither of those institutions is doing so well right now, but Telesis and the Rubell Foundation, a major contemporary art collection,  have plans to put an apartment-museum building behind the heritage buildings, with Bing Thom designing. We shall see, yes? The other is Capitol Park Plaza, a midcentury building, which has a surprisingly warm facade for the period.

No surprise to discover that this is one of the buildings in the area designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith. A noted local architect who happened to be a woman at the time when that raised eyebrows, Smith was quite shrewd here, registering the slab form with details that let humans comfortably occupy austere forms. First, she used tiles to enclose private porches. These balconies are massed in vertical lines at either end and staggered in the middle. This detail diminishes the monotony and overwhelming scale of the building without losing the exhilaration of long lines. The balconies also allow the roof to extend over the building envelope, reducing leaks, while keeping a strong outer volumetric edge that expresses the modernist formal fixation of a flat, uniform edge.  The pure geometry of modernist architecture can be difficult or expensive to register in actual building, so in a compromise, Smith simply implies it.