Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Design by Democracy

If it’s true that two cabinet members, 31 congressmen, 12 senators and 14 judges are counted among the most celebrated residents at the The Westchester, at 4000 Cathedral Ave NW, it may also be said that the 79-year-old co-op is steeped in democracy.

In the spring of 2008, when the time came to consider restoring and renovating the structure’s storied interior – its public spaces that had been redesigned once before by mid-century design doyenne Dorothy Draper – the Westchester’s board of directors elected to put democracy in action and recruit hundreds of member-owners in the decision-making process. With four distinct buildings, each with its own lobby and personality, the project was to be massive in scope and scale. Defined by elements both from the 1930s (steel fanlight windows; etched art deco elevator doors) and from Draper’s reign in the 1950s (wing chairs; crown sconces; a broad brass interior railing), the Westchester was also saddled with more random components such as an outdated mechanical unit in a closet. A June 2009 press account of the arrest of former State Department official and alleged Cuba spy Walter Ken Myers and his wife, long time residents of the property, reported that the building had “shabby carpets,” something the 13-member board of directors took quite seriously in its restoration/ renovation plans. With a preservation architect hired to mastermind a plan, efforts to redefine The Westchester without sacrificing its historical elegance would require a marshaling of innovative forces, and more than just a simple nod to its back story.

Democracy and Demography

“When we started the process, we started out with a town hall meeting,” said board member Susan Stine, noting that the eldest member of the diverse Westchester community is 102 and at the other end of the spectrum, a brand new baby is about to be born. “We showed historical photographs; we talked about the process and how you make decisions, and we talked about our guiding principles (these included maintaining architectural integrity, enhancing the feeling of community, and effecting sustainable improvements into the future).” Stine, principal of architecture and planning firm Redteam Strategies and a Westchester resident, is no stranger to commercial design and understood that “a lot of times in large companies, people don’t get the sense that they have any choice. With something as dramatic as their lobbies, they really want a lot of choice,” she said.

Feasting on Feedback

Stine admits she and the board learned a great lesson when making their initial presentation to the member-owners. “It was too much information,” she said, noting member-owners were overwhelmed by the process that included lobbies, laundry areas, basements and management offices. “We thought we were showing them a kind of concept that would go out over years, and they thought too many decisions had already been made without their input.” Extremely grateful for the feedback, the board took a step back and decided it was just as important to communicate to the owner-members and get their buy-in as it was to adhere to history and make everything beautiful. Recalling to the unfortunate carpet issue mentioned in the press, Stine realized that “everyone focuses around carpet…in my career I’ve always noticed that it’s a big decision, so we narrowed things down to just the carpet, and knew once people understood that, other decisions would be much easier,” she explained.

Surveys, workshops and focus groups soon followed, replete with old Westchester photographs strategically placed in elevators (part of the education process) and image boards on easels that reflected carpet patterns like damask or Moorish, along with color palettes, and explanations of the design concepts behind each pattern. For example, the concept behind the Moorish pattern was interpreted as “elements found in our architecture such as the porte-cochere - inspired by existing wrought iron details in entry gates, railing and grilles.” Additionally, every household received five dots they could spend in any way they wanted, Stine said, “…the dots showing the strength of their preferences.” Describing the process as “fascinating,” she said it was done over two days where residents visited the image boards, sometimes repeatedly, and got to inquire of the board about why things were done the way they were. They conferred with their neighbors, their families, and as a community, and then each household applied its dots to what it liked best. (Moorish won!)

Casting an eye to sustainability, Stine noted that the original concept was to replace carpeting with stone, but that the cost was determined to be prohibitive. To that end, she said member-residents were also concerned about overall funds, thinking they would be charged a special assessment for any changes to public spaces. Another town hall meeting addressed the issue. The chosen carpet will come from South Africa, it will be made of durable wool and nylon, on a green pad with low-or no-VOC adhesives, and have a projected 25-year lifespan.

With work scheduled to begin in July, and paint and upholstery choices on deck in its town hall design process, Stine said that The Westchester board – which also appointed resident committees for the project – is fortunate to have distinguished members of the architecture, design and communications industries on those committees. “We have so much (resident) talent and commitment here. We’d go on trips to the design center,” she recalled, affirming “you couldn’t buy” this kind of personal investment.


IMGoph on Mar 30, 2010, 10:46:00 AM said...

you know what would have made this article even better? a link, a mention, a map...something telling us where this building is. because, without that, unless you're intimately familiar with it, you have no idea.

Sheila said...

Excellent point--will do so now.

Sheila said...

And it's 4000 Cathedral Ave NW, in Wesley Heights, by the way.

IMGoph on Mar 30, 2010, 11:11:00 AM said...

thank you sheila, much appreciated. i was wondering why a map wasn't available by clicking on the orange icon at the beginning of the article, like most dcmud articles?

Sheila said...

Because we are thinking of having separate development maps verses architecture and design maps. We want to broaden our horizons by getting into more than just development stories.

Also, I'm in charge of creating that map and I haven't started it yet. But don't tell Ken.

poo poo pee doo! said...

i almost bought a fairly large two bedroom unit there in 1997. cost? $179k

i opted not to, because the building seemed kind of shoddy and had a funky "old" smell.

had i read this article then, i would have been an idiot not to have purchased it! TIMING IS EVERYTHING!

Anonymous said...

With all the coops that need updating around the District, this sounds like a great model for process. Hope you'll update us as the plan is put into place. Thanks.

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