A recent widely-read piece in the Washington Post, “The Height of Power,” noted the great prospects of Washington's rise to the top, not only in politics but in publishing, media, business and the arts. In this way, it said, Washington's evolution will follow the pattern of other great capitals like London, New York, Paris or Tokyo.
As a seventh-generation Washingtonian, born here and baptized in the National Cathedral, this is a prediction I am delighted to hear. I spent almost ten years producing avant garde experimental theater in the US and on tour in Europe, but I was based in San Francisco, not in Washington; my Washington artistic presence consisted of my last production, Actual Shō, playing the Kennedy Center Opera House in 1988. As an MIT bachelor of science graduate (in architecture), I know and greatly appreciate the spirit of innovation and experimentation that is at the core of America’s entrepreneurial, adventurous approach to life.
There are many reasons why America needs Washington to enter the first rank of innovative cultural centers. Dearest to me is that playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and all the artists who take on the portrayals of politicians, politics, and power will become part of the same milieu as the political leaders. The result will be that members of each group develop a more sophisticated understanding of the other.
The key to transforming Washington into a center of cultural and scientific innovation is to establish a stimulating neighborhood, such as New York city’s SoHo/Tribeca, that attracts creative people who cross-fertilize each other, and who become part of the everyday social circle both of the political leadership and of the city’s African-American core community.
Where should Washington build the creative, innovative neighborhood it needs to accomplish this? I know just the place: A parcel of some 100 acres, now occupied by wholesale grocery and souvenir warehouses, light industry, a federal Park Service truck maintenance yard, and little-used, dilapidated municipal facilities. Its bare, windswept hilltop is the last unoccupied “commanding height” in the city. It doesn’t have any residences (and thus no residents to oppose the project), yet it’s within just a mile of the Capitol Dome.
I’m a member of a family that has been present in Washington for more than 200 years. Our family lands included this property, which was a large woodland estate, started in about 1800. It included all the land west of today’s Gallaudet University to the railroad tracks (plus some land on the other side of the tracks), north of Florida Avenue, and, on the north, included not only the ground on which today New York Avenue lies, but also the railroad yards north of New York Avenue.
Just south of New York Avenue, the land rises steeply to a hilltop, and then falls away gently. This hilltop is now home to a National Park Service maintenance yard and the Brentwood Reservoir, but from about 1811 to 1915 it was the site of a mansion built by Congressman Joseph Pearson (Federalist – NC) for his second wife, Eleanor, daughter of the first mayor of Washington, Robert Brent. From the 1820s through the 1880s the Brentwood Mansion was a social center of Washington, scene of many a dinner and ball as horse-drawn carriages conveyed the wealthy and powerful up the hill, through the well-kept forest to the mansion. For aficionados of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it was the closest thing Washington ever had to the fictional Pemberly of Mr. Darcy – and it was built in precisely the era of Jane Austen. Now the site is strewn with rusting machine parts and Park Service dumpsters. Sic transit gloria mundi (“so passes worldly glory”).
As the city grew it surrounded the estate, but the estate itself was never developed. The city took pieces of it, built New York Avenue over part of it, and put railroad tracks on one side. As the city developed, the isolated, aging mansion never gained access to modern utilities, and the family moved away and neglected it. Eventually, in the early 1920s, my grandfather developed a wholesale food market and managed the land until his death in 1948. One of his brothers died in 1951; a third lived far away; the fourth tried to manage the property from his home in Connecticut but gave up and sold it all.
This large parcel that once was our family land is now again in disrepair. The city government and owners of various pieces of it are hoping to develop it: the usual mix of office-buildings and townhouses, with no particular theme or vision of a unique, exciting neighborhood.
What I propose is to develop this entire large area – not just the parts subject to the present plans, but almost all of the former family property, including the mix of federal and DC-government land – as a neighborhood specifically dedicated to be stimulating and exciting for creative people. The property offers an ideal place to create an “arts and innovation district,” a kind of SoHo or San Francisco in DC. It’s large, contiguous, and self-contained. It already has an institution of higher learning, Gallaudet, along one side, and a Metro stop at one corner.
Since the property is south of New York Avenue, I think of it as SoNYA = Sonya = “Sonya’s Neighborhood,” which sets the tone for the concept as personal and human, rather than the bureaucratic feel of calling it a “district” or “zone.” This large-scale project would be a major job-generator, exactly in-line with the new Stimulus Bill, and the existing federal and DC-government ownership means that it is an ideal public-works project for President Obama and Mayor Adrian Fenty to promote.
The fact that the site includes a prominent hilltop gives the project a glittering opportunity to achieve instant national and international status. If you fly into Washington, you will see a prominent hilltop gothic cathedral, the National Cathedral. It symbolizes the importance of religion in American life. And, of course, anyone coming to Washington sees the Capitol Dome, which symbolizes democratic government, and sees the monuments to the Presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson – that symbolize the importance of history.
The hilltop where the family mansion stood is a place where Presidents, Senators, Cabinet Members, Justices, and Representatives dined, drank, and danced long ago. It should now be the site of a highly-visible, signature building of innovative design to serve as an Arts & Innovation Center. The ground is at an elevation of 175 feet above sea level. Any tall building placed on this “commanding height” not only will have commanding views down across the city, it will also “be seen” from many places around the city, as are the National Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. This prominent building will symbolize the importance to America of innovation and creativity. As core tenants, I propose the federal agencies the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, who would move their headquarters from the Old Post Office. The building could also house a Washington branch of the new Singularity University based in Silicon Valley (see http://singularityu.org/.)
This building would serve as the keynote for the entire development, which would spread-out to the south on the slope below it, down towards Florida Ave. “Sonya’s Neighborhood” should be mixed-use, residential and office, with the ambience of New York’s SoHo or of San Francisco’s denser neighborhoods, and a feel similar to Venice, Italy – lots of narrow pedestrian-only streets, with bistros, art galleries, clubs, etc. – a place where creative people like to hang out.
A local surface transit system can connect from the Metro stop through all of the development up to the hilltop Arts & Innovation Center building. It could extend into the Gallaudet campus, and to the nearby Ivy City neighborhood as it is redeveloped.
There is much more to the proposal, including relocation of the grocery and souvenir wholesalers, and the Park Service maintenance facilities, to a new facility built overtop of the railroad yard north of New York Avenue (as in Manhattan, where Park Avenue is built overtop of railroad lines running to Grand Central Terminal). I encourage anyone who is interested to contact me via e-mail at email@example.com (no “n” in “sissoed”) to learn more.
Edward Sisson is a Washington D.C.-based attorney. If there is sufficient interest in developing the Arts & Innovation Building and Sonya's Neighborhood, he expects to take a leading role as "producer" of that exciting project, utilizing his unique background in Washington, in architecture, in the arts and the sciences, and in law to solve the many hurdles and obstacles that will confront the project.