Words: Carrie Snider
Photos: Maxwell Mackenzie
How about this for a building design challenge? Take an empty lot, rich with local history, and create a mixed-use building that honors the past as well as fits in with the modern commercial buildings around it. Doesn’t seem too complicated, does it?
That challenge was exactly what Bonstra-Haresign Architects took on when designing The Aston in downtown Washington, D.C. The seven-story, 30,000 square-foot building includes 31 condo units ranging in size, plus business space on the ground floor and residential parking underground.
The property is located at 14th Street and R Street, not far from the White House, and has a unique history. Victorian residences once lined the street there, but those were eventually demolished and in the 1920s the area became “Automobile Row” with showrooms built of limestone.
Unfortunately, those buildings disappeared during the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, when many buildings were set ablaze. As the fires destroyed the buildings, it seems history could have died with it.
Since then, the lot has been vacant, waiting patiently for a new life—to be remembered and to be integrated back into the community.
In about 2000, the property owner approached Bonstra-Haresign Architects to design a building on the empty space. The firm came up with some ideas; however, the client sold the lot. Back to the drawing board, so to speak. The architects worked with the new owner, but that didn’t pan out.
Finally, a third developer came on board, and that is who officially hired the architecture firm for what would become The Aston building, so named to remind residents of the property’s roots in the automobile industry.
Bonstra-Haresign Architects was a natural fit for the project, as they had worked on similar projects with a historic D.C. look, including Studio Theatre only a few blocks away, and even the Bonstra-Haresign Architects’ own building—which is located just across the street.
“Our company’s building is the derivative of those 1920s buildings with a big centerpiece of glass, flanking wings with doors, and doors,” Bonstra said. “And then, we put some more modern sort of bristle lay on it.”
But the firm doesn’t only keep its design idea sources internal. Community input actually helped shape the Studio Theatre project in a strong way—the neighborhood spoke, and Bonstra-Haresign listened. Instead of having metal panels for the theater, ideas presented at a community meeting urged them to instead design using glass.
“We said, ‘fantastic idea.’ The next day, we said, ‘let’s do it.’ And that made a big difference in contributing to the streetscape. Rather than dark metal panels, we had these translucent pieces. And those were decisions that helped make the architecture more humane and compatible,” he said.
Really honing in on what the community hoped to see in its buildings was key to keeping the integrity and vibe of the neighborhood.
For The Aston project, Bill Bonstra and the other design architects spent days sketching the design, coming up with a variety of ideas to make the building fit into the look and feel of the area. As a collective group, the more brains going into the architecture details, the better.
“That’s how we do many projects,” he said. “We try to get some sort of design energy going and have lots of different vantage points and perspectives on the architecture.”
And since the firm was already located in the neighborhood, all they had to do was look outside to see what was there—historic residential brick buildings and commercial spaces.
Use of Masonry in the Building
From the beginning of The Aston design planning, designers knew that masonry would be a strong element in the building. For one thing, that’s what buildings on the East Coast tend to use.
“It’s something we feel authentic here in Washington, but it’s also craft-based,” Bonstra said. “We use masonry for new buildings to give it permanence and give it value because I think masonry is long-lasting and durable. But at the same time, it offers us a way to create something authentic, something to fit in with the surrounding architecture.”
Designers chose to use a golden brick with white trim, along with a “butterflied” window, meaning punched windows flanking a richly articulated bay window. This would help to enhance the views of the vibrant commercial 14th Street.
“It’s a strong, central composition,” he said.
Masonry walls jutting off the side of the building would add a measure of privacy and offer a sound barrier, in addition to offering its own unique flair.
Also in the plans were metal elements to marry the building into surrounding commercial buildings. A metal shell would wrap the building in the north-south direction, bending to form a crown. Then, a metal cornice would showcase the building’s residential use.
Weaving different elements together was essential to making it look seamless. Two areas of metal and glass were to be stitched together with a lattice of metal bands. Putting these in front of colorful masonry would further highlight both the metal and the brick.
Designers also paid specific attention to lighting, in order to add ambiance and safety to the building.
As Bonstra explained: “It has up lights, which light the projecting roof, which is a bar grating. In the daytime, the bar grading allows light sunlight to filter through and not appear heavy in. That was a conscious effort to show the building daytime and nighttime in different ways.”
Altogether, the elements would come together to create a historic blending that makes The Aston fit right in with the neighborhood.
Of course, designs had to go before a preservation review board and the board of zoning adjustment, along with code and entitlements. Those are essential and important steps to make sure everything was just right. That review process took about two years to complete. Then, they broke ground.
Developers Sequar and Valor started construction on The Aston during the summer of 2011, and construction took just over a year to finish. Kirk Taylor Potomac Valley Brick was the supplier, with manufacturers Triangle Brick Company and Carolina Ceramics Brick Co.
Oak Tree Building Group, located only about seven miles from The Aston property, was hired as the Mason Contractor for the project. The firm had long experience in the area, having previously completed masonry work on these notable D.C. buildings: The Salvation Army-Solomon G. Brown Corps Center, Logan Row, The Moderno Building, Asheford Court, and 3333 Wisconsin Avenue.
Attention to Detail
The relationship between the designers and the masons is always vitally important on a construction project, and The Aston was no exception. The building required a lot of intricate mason work to translate the historic-looking designs into modern-day reality.
In order for a successful final product, multiple-colored mortars with multiple-colored bricks all had to match up just right.
The masons of Oak Tree Building Group who worked on The Aston clearly enjoyed their craft, Bonstra noted. Many times they brought in designers to see their work as they were doing it and showed them how it was going to look. Constant communication is key to making sure the project goes smoothly and that the design vision is translated.
“They’re interested in doing a good job,” Bonstra said. “They delight in their craft; they don’t just want to do cookie-cutter stuff. They want to do interesting polychromatic buildings. It gives them great satisfaction.” The masons’ pride in workmanship definitely shows in The Aston.
When it was all said and done, the 31 condo units went quickly. Clearly, people wanting to live in this part of D.C. liked the look and feel of the building, plus its proximity to many city amenities. But also, the size and prices of the units varied widely, allowing many people access to it.
The two penthouses sold for over $1 million each, offering 1,400 square feet of living space with two bedrooms and 2.5 baths, plus a private rooftop terrace. The smallest unit was a studio apartment at just under 500 square feet, which sold for $268,000. The remaining units ranged in price and size between the two, for example, a two-bedroom, two-bath for about $600,000.
Unit owners aren’t the only ones who have been drawn to The Aston. The building, specifically its masonry elements, was recognized in the 2017 Brick in Architecture Awards, winning Best in Class, Residential-Multifamily. Given by the Brick Industry Association, the awards are judged by independent design professionals.
There is something to be said of a local design firm looking at a lot’s specific history and growing that into an idea for a building. Now, The Aston is a true reflection of the community. With historic-looking brickwork that blends with neighboring residential buildings, and metal and glass elements that bring in a commercial vibe, the end result is an infusion of what 14th Street is all about. Clearly, however challenging the design was to bring to life, it was well worth the effort.