Some say the aerial view of the Washington Hilton in Dupont looks like a distant seagull, some say the hotel looks like a sedentary spaceship. The Historic Preservation Review Board says it looks like a historic landmark. In a 5-2 vote at their July 24th meeting, the board designated the Washington Hilton Hotel at 1919 Connecticut Avenue, NW a historic landmark based on "Criteria D and F", architectural significance and the work of a master.
In his staff report prior to the meeting, Tim Dennee, Architectural Historian for HPRB, recommended that the Board designate the Hilton, built from 1962-1965, a historical landmark and wrote, "Its sinuous massing was a radical departure from traditional local architecture as was its use of column and slab construction throughout, and uniform, pre-cast concrete, windowed wall panels."
In addition to his praise for Architect William B. Tabler, who designed the 1,250-room full-service hotel and whom Dennee described as "no household name, but nonetheless an extraordinarily prolific and acknowledged master of hotel design," Dennee pointed out the hotel's significance as the site of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan and as a venue for events attended by subsequent presidents.
But not everyone was as convinced that the hotel was worthy of landmark status, which not only puts it on the National Register of Historic Places, but also makes the building subject to preservation law, which "requires review of proposals for new construction and additions, demolition, and exterior alterations." Among the reasons the two dissenting members - and several local residents - opposed the landmark were doubts about the distinctiveness of the building, the significance of the architect, and the owner's motivation in landmarking it.
There has been some speculation that the applicant and owner, C.J.U.F. II Destination Hotel LLC, a partnership of Los Angeles-based Lowe Enterprises and Beverly Hills-based Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds, LLC, created by basketball star Magic Johnson, applied for the landmark to be eligible to apply for a parking and loading waiver in the event of future on-site construction or renovations. The HPRB can't confirm this, as the owner did not discuss it with them, nor did they officially submit future construction plans. The developer bought the hotel in May of last year and is currently working with the HPRB to come up with a residential concept that is applicable to the now landmarked hotel.
Dennee, on the other hand, said it seemed like the owner applied for the land mark to beat other applicants to the punch, "In his testimony before the HPRB, the owners’ rep seemed to suggest that the motivation was largely the fact that they recognized it as an important building and thought that someone else might nominate it as a landmark. The owners apparently wished to manage any risk and the timing by forwarding the nomination themselves," he said.
"We have the zoning and development right to build, but now that we had the hotel landmarked, we have to have any building concepts approved. We want to work with the community and the HPRB to come up with a concept that works with the landmarked building. We felt that if we landmarked the hotel ourself, we were opening doors to the community to have a good rapport. We want to set a precedent that developers should be landmarking their own buildings rather than fighting it," said Sarah Hubbard, Development Manager at Lowe Enterprises.
"We want to be proud of the fact that it's recognized as a historic site. There were things left out of its original design and now we want to bring the historic site into the 21st century, so any addition would not only be a modern addition, but it would fix some urban design problems like open space and pedestrian access," said Hubbard.
According to William B. Tabler Architects' website, the sprawling form, a result of the District's height restriction, "gave every guest-room a view with light, space and air. The curve allowed for an efficient double loaded corridor while breaking the endless vista that usually occurs in such long buildings." The landmarking process is intended to protect the physical fabric and appearance of historic structures. We think Jody Foster will be impressed.