Quinn Evans renews Pope’s Constitution Hall for another century of concerts

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have been architectural patrons in Washington, D.C. since 1905 when Edward Pearce Casey’s design for their Memorial Continental Hall was completed one block north of the National Mall. Locals know its central meeting space, genealogy library, and museum from DAR’s annual open house, and for almost 120 years, Memorial Continental Hall has been the center of the organization’s activities, debates, and votes. 

Locals also know the adjacent Constitution Hall, designed by John Russell Pope in 1924 and completed in 1930, as the scene of hundreds of concerts, comedy shows, military band performances, and upwards of 40 graduations each year for area schools. Its National Register nomination notes its original purpose for DAR’s annual congress was surpassed soon after it opened by its new status as the “unofficial cultural center for the Nation’s Capital.”  Even today, if you live within 50 miles of it, you’ve probably been there at least once to enjoy something from one its 3,702 seats (making it the largest concert hall in the District). 

Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires.

Quinn Evans worked with DAR for more than 10 years to restore and refresh elements of Memorial Continental Hall and Administration Building and, starting with a 2014 feasibility study, Constitution Hall. The team restored the U-shaped lobby and upgraded its mechanical systems, restored the stage area, and restored and upgraded the auditorium, itself, including structural reinforcements, safety measures for riggers above, and basement and backstage dressing rooms for visiting acts that might host a church choral group from Cincinnati one day and Bob Dylan the next and then Tina Fey and Amy Pohler the week after.

Pope’s edifice is striking for its perfect Neoclassical temple front that rises above 18th Street. The drama of approaching from the south at an oblique angle is heightened by the road’s gentle elevation change and the facade offers a strong counterpoint to the stripped down Classicism of the Department of the Interior’s flank across the street. The drama that most will remember, however, is inside the main hall as part of a $18 million restoration by Quinn Evans, earning it a 2022 Award of Honor for Historic Preservation by AIA Virginia.

“The goal was to be as accurate as we could be in the restoration, but also provide the kind of flexibility that contemporary performances need,” says Katie Irwin, AIA, a senior associate at Quinn Evans and project manager for the Constitution Hall renovation. “The client’s values really aligned with Quinn Evans’ values in the work we do and in terms of wanting to be great stewards of historic properties.”

As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. Courtesy Quinn Evans

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for concertgoers who’ve been attending shows there for the last 20 years will be the resurfaced coved ceiling, which gently meets the flanking walls of the auditorium. It was rebuilt and resurfaced to gently bounce uplighting while also focusing the eye along its lines towards the stage. It also frames the laylight in the center of the ceiling that’s been framed by a grid. Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires. As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. The added bonus of using LEDs is that lighting technicians can adjust it to suit different moods, as the performer on stage or the event requires. 

“It’s a complex system that has a daylight mode and a starlight mode, so it can twinkle, too,” says Anne Kopf, AIA, an Associate at Quinn Evans and project architect who led construction administration on-site and managed the design and engineering teams on the project.

To that end, there are a few other theaters in town of the same vintage that are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Warner Theater opened in 1924 (as the Earle Theater) has a capacity that’s about half of Constitution Hall’s, and remains a popular venue for artists as diverse as P.J. Harvey and Animal Collective, the horror film director/composer John Carpenter, or–this month–a mariachi band from Tecalitlán, Mexico. There’s also the Avalon in Chevy Chase, which opened in 1922 with an original capacity of 1,200 (today, as a cinema, it’s closer to 450), and continues its centenary celebration this year with the latest Wes Anderson film and a documentary about Vermeer. 

DAR’s Constitution Hall is a different caliber, though, whose exterior makes most (if not all) of the lists of notable architecture in the city, but whose auditorium is on par with the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall. “You don’t have a space like this anywhere else in DC,” says Kopf, “and it’s a major draw to attend shows, but the space itself—the restoration—is part of the draw.”

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Project credits:

Architecture Firm: Quinn Evans

Owner: Daughters of the American Revolution (Stephen Nordholt, Representative)

General Contractor: The Christman Company

MEP Engineering:  Greenman Pedersen Inc. and Loring Consulting Engineers

Historic Paint Finishes Specialist: Artifex Ltd.

Structural Engineer: 1200 Architectural Engineers

Theatrical Lighting and Theater Planning: Schuler Shook

Lighting Design (Phase 1 – Lobby): Gary Steffy Lighting Design

Acoustical Consulting: Jaffee Holden

Life Safety Engineering: GHD

Stage Mural Recreation: Holly Highfill

Photographer: Ron Blunt Photography

How viable is sustainability for downtowns and design budgets?  

The focus today on adaptive reuse as a strategy for decarbonization is still subject to the economics of running an architecture firm and contingent on market forces and their players like developers, investors, owners, and operators. Commonwealth Architects Principal Lee Shadbolt, AIA, and Principal Emeritus Robert Burns, AIA, say that the value proposition of adapting an old building for new uses remains strong for their clients who are “bottom-line oriented,” but in approaching the question of embodied and operational carbon, they say, “you have to think about the quality of the existing building stock that’s left, which is different across Virginia. There’s not a single solution.”

At this point, and considering the digital tools to evaluate existing building stock, how would you say adaptive reuse has changed over the last decade

Lee Shadbolt: The adaptive reuse projects that were near the central business district in any town and any city—if they were a good project, they were probably already done about 10 years ago. The good projects downtown are done. Now we’re seeing another set of buildings coming up that have reached their 50-year threshold for historic tax credits, and they’re not old like we think of as historic architecture—they’re Modern architecture. They present another set of rules, especially for our firm, for another set of different materials. 

How are you talking to clients about the material realities—meaning the literal performance of materials—of projects that are 50 years old versus 100 years old, say?

Robert Burns: A lot of our clients tend to be bottom-line folks—especially if they’re developers. In terms of materials, it’s the same discussion for those younger buildings as it is for older ones—what can we do to extend the life of certain materials? When is it more cost effective to replace something? What do you replace it with? In some of our historic work where we are inserting contemporary fabric, we make it clear what’s new and what’s historic. 

Lee: It really depends on the situation. We have one job now where we’re looking to convert an office tower into a hotel. The hotel chain came back and said they wanted to replace the old, single-pane windows. We said we can’t do that—they are the “contributing factors” and historic characteristics. We have another job with a curtain wall, which is in good shape, and we’re just going to add another pane of glass. There’s a third case, which was an old warehouse—a manufacturing plant for tobacco—and the windows had been replaced with glass blocks 30 years ago. So, we went in and put back steel-sash windows, which were the original windows before the glass blocks.

How does Commonwealth Architects see trends unfolding across Virginia for existing buildings, especially considering the pressures of climate change in such an ecologically diverse state?

Lee: We’ve seen, in the Tidewater region, the demolishing of a lot of historic buildings rather than adaptively using them. Petersburg has the best building stock in the state, but building new things there isn’t economically viable. Richmond? If there was low-hanging fruit in the past, in terms of readily and easily renovating or restoring an old building, it’s been done. Danville, Lynchburg, and so on—all different stories—but it’s been done there and there’s not a lot left to work with and the days when you could buy an old warehouse for $25 a square foot and convert it are gone.

Robert: Our cost-conscious clients seem to be a lot more interested in the energy efficiency of their buildings than they used to be, especially since a lot of the costs of certification for LEED and others have come down. Before the rise of a lot of the energy efficiency focus, they could care less—it was always about first-cost—but we are seeing a lot more owner-operators now, too, who are a lot more interest in energy efficiency. 

Lee: We always ask a question of our owner-operators about their future tenants about how they think the upfront energy upgrades would cost them in five years, and then they always discover that it’s only a few more dollars a month. So, that’s satisfying to make that argument early and succeed. It sets the tone for the whole project. 

Robert: As the demographic of downtown residents has trended younger and younger, I find that they’re interested in the greenness of a building. Richmond is talking now about doing away with required parking for downtown condominiums and apartments, primarily because their residents don’t drive cars. Now, that can be argued in a lot of ways, but it’s undeniable that the people who move downtown now are interested in sustainable design. Developers are smart and if they know that, they’ll start to leverage it. 

Lee: We’re getting closer—and the threshold is lower to get over now to send a message that sustainability is viable. With multi-family, you’re getting younger folks, but you’re getting empty-nester baby boomers, too. I was recently in a seminar when someone on the panel said, “The thing you can do to live longer is to be around people and be engaged.” That’s the opposite of moving to a golf course community or moving to the mountains away from people. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Design Dialogue: New calculator compares carbon savings for existing and new building

In December, Architecture 2030 launched a calculator to estimate the operational and embodied carbon emissions of a project in two scenarios: reusing it and upgrading it or replacing it with new construction. Dubbed the Carbon Avoided Retrofit Estimator (CARE) Tool, Architecture 2030 hopes to underscore the carbon savings that can be found by adapting existing buildings for future use in contrast to the widespread assumption that new construction is always appropriate. 

Users can enter general project information, as well as climate and electricity grid information (or ask the tool to use default values for each municipality). When entering project information, the tool adjusts your ratios to make it foolproof and fast to enter information (i.e. if you tell it you’ll be using 25 percent refurbished finishes for the interior, then it automatically sets your new finishes to 75 percent). 

As you enter information, the tool also automatically builds your comparison on the screen to show how small or large adjustments can impact the bottom line. Architects and owners can use the estimates to apply for competitions, obtain grants, or reach required targets. The tool also assists policymakers and preservation officials by offering a data-backed, apples-to-apples picture of a situation they can leverage to influence decisions by appointees or non-experts.  

But, the front line of the CARE Tool’s potential remains architects, designers, and planners who specialize in sustainable design to weigh-in on the CARE Tool, its use, and their experiences. Inform spoke with area professionals who tested the CARE Tool about their impressions. In this Design Dialogue, area architects talk about their experience with the CARE Tool, as well as their hope for its use and application. 

Michelle Amt, AIA, is the Director of Sustainability and Inclusion and Associate Principal at VMDO Architects. “From an inclusion standpoint, the tool helps find value in buildings that aren’t necessarily deemed a ‘contributing structure’,” she says.

“I’ve used the CARE Tool on a few projects to check the scale of the environmental impact and payoff period for buildings. To renovate or build new is about so much more than functionality. It’s about accessibility, heritage, and climate action, too, and so now we are able to define climate action as total carbon. It’s one of a couple of quick calculators out there now that look at total carbon emissions. Up until about five years ago, when people talked about emissions in the built environment, they were really talking about operational carbon. But, the conversation progressed to talk about the energy of materials. So, that was a great development, but the conversation has also become more complicated. Clients who know a little about embodied carbon would get bogged down with, “Well, does it make sense to save this building? Replace it? How do I figure out how to invest here?” But, until now, nothing has really dealt with the existing stock of buildings out there as well as the CARE Tool. Unless a building has a designated historic benefit, it is usually deemed cheaper to demo and build anew.”

Patrick Farley, AIA, is the founder of Patrick Farley Architect and splits his time (and practice) between Afton and Richmond. “I found a tool like this to be useful because it helps lots of people see how front-end decisions can have consequences.”

I have an existing building on a farm in Charlottesville that we’re converting, breathing new life into it and expanding it—so there are existing conditions, but there are new aspects to it. I used it as the basis for a trial run with the CARE Tool, and I didn’t have all the information I needed for my project, so I used some other industry data for similar buildings of the same type, and I was able to come up with a picture of the future of this project, from a carbon point of view.

I was one of the first signatories to the 2030 Commitment, and I support the mission, still, to bring greater awareness to the broader, climate-related challenges we’re facing with alarming regularity. I’ve done energy modeling through the years, but less and less so as time has gone on because I’ve relied more on my expertise and intuition. But, I found a tool like this to be useful because it helps lots of people see how front-end decisions can have consequences later—and it reminded me of energy modeling, in a lot of ways. It triggers awareness, even if not a lot of people will want to dig into the numbers to the degree that the tool allows. 

But, there are subtleties to this, too. I was one of the earliest solar panel adopters, and I’ve used it throughout the years, and at this point I can say that just because solar panels are involved doesn’t mean a project is going to succeed in limiting its carbon footprint. If there’s a second version of this tool, it would be a way to account for this reality. Some sort of account of how marketplace products and their production represent a more complex supply chain. 

Learn more at caretool.org

FBI’s New HQ Presents Opportunities for Equity, Architects

Virginia and Maryland lawmakers have renewed their respective pleas in recent weeks to host the new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) six months after the FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) began the selection process in September. GSA and FBI officials are expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. 

Springfield, Virginia, Greenbelt, Maryland, and Landover, Maryland, are in the running for the final selection by the 115-year old agency, which employs approximately 35,000 people and is currently headquartered in downtown DC in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, designed by Charles F. Murray Associates. The Brutalist building, which spans two city blocks and more than 2.4 million square feet, was designed for about 7,000 employees. As the agency has grown to more than 35,000 employees nationwide, it has had to lease space in the metropolitan area (and beyond) for workers.

Square footage aside, the often maligned building is seen as outmoded and poorly maintained. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report cited more than $80 million in deferred repairs and improvements (the same year the GSA deemed it unusable). From a design perspective, deep floor plates have meant that few workers have access to natural daylight, leaks have plagued every corner of the building, and the structural requirements for its cantilevered floors have restricted office reconfigurations—especially on its upper floors.

The FBI hopes to create a flexible flagship property that’s more attuned to contemporary attitudes about worker health for its law enforcement agents and support staff. In its criteria for a new site, the FBI has incorporated the requirements of a 2021 Executive Order signed by President Biden for federal agencies to advance racial equity as an operational priority in how it invests its funds—especially if it can make an investment in underserved communities. 

“The federal government should be applauded for their efforts to invest in underserved communities and we, as architects and design professionals, should help them as they move forward,” says Paula Loomis, FAIA, a member of the AIA Virginia Advocacy Advisory Committee. “Done well, federal projects not only provide employment opportunities, but weave their employees into the fabric and life of the neighborhood thus creating a community.”

Loomis, a public architect with 39 years of master planning, architectural design, construction management, and facility operations experience with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and General Services Administration, points to other projects in the region that successfully demonstrate how agency objectives can be met while also being a community anchor. She points to the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Northeast DC, home of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, designed by Moshe Safdie Architects and completed in 2008—calling it a “catalyst” for the neighborhood including local businesses and housing. 

Weighing the options

For the FBI and GSA, the scoring rubric for a new headquarters includes fulfillment of the FBI’s mission and access to key sites in the region (35 percent), access to transportation for its workers (25 percent), and the cost to acquire and develop the site (10 percent). Racial equity and sustainable siting comprise 15 percent of the weighted grades they will apply to the three sites under consideration, all of which are located adjacent to Metro stops. 

Maryland lawmakers say that Greenbelt and Landover in Prince George’s County are uniquely situated to satisfy the agency’s racial equity requirement, with 61.2% of residents identifying as African-American. The county’s Economic Development Corporation also points out that its “500 square miles of opportunity” are already home to 15 federal agencies. At a press conference on February 15, Virginia lawmakers pointed to the Commonwealth’s growth and Fairfax County’s status as a favorable business environment cited by corporate giants Amazon, Boeing, and Raytheon as worthy dimensions of its eligibility. They also pointed to the “majority minority” demographics of Springfield, with nearly 60 percent of the population identifying as non-White, as a key credential.

When the FBI announces its choice, Loomis says it might be a fait accompli for the neighborhoods that were turned down, but it’s also the starting point for architects to steer the conversation about design and community development issues. Her recommendations? Public engagement sessions, becoming GSA peer reviewers, or working through GSA’s process to become architects for the new headquarters are all viable options for area designers hoping to make a difference.

“As GSA moves forward with any of the three sites,” says Loomis, “let’s ensure AIA architect involvement to make the most of the project and whichever community is selected.”

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Perspectives on Justice: Jenine Kotob on Inclusion and Belonging

Jenine Kotob, AIA, is the Senior Director of Career Advancement at The American Institute of Architects, where she aligns the national chapter’s equity, diversity, and inclusion agenda with the stages of—and the support required for—an architect’s journey. Before joining AIA National, Kotob was an associate architect at Hord Coplan Macht’s Alexandria office, specializing in educational design and, for four years prior to HCM, a project architect with Quinn Evans. Kotob holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech and a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she says that the architecture profession and its academy are enriched when we create a sense of belonging for everyone. “Everyone benefits when you include all of the voices that are underrepresented and that are at-risk for not being heard,” she says.

How do you work through AIA to make an impact on the profession?

As a practicing architect, for a long time, I kept my personal identity separate from my professional identity. I had a master’s degree from MIT in the Aga Khan program, but it didn’t seem relevant to the work I was doing as an architect, so I asked myself how I could blend my passion for architectural workforce issues with a pathway forward. At AIA,  I look at the entire career journey of the architect—from youth to K-12 to higher education to leadership in practice to retirement. I got into this line of work because I believe it is important to look at how to support professionals at every stage of their career—and a big cornerstone is integrating EDI, justice, and belonging as a lens. Who’s missing? Who’s not being represented? How can my work support them to remove the barriers for advancement?

What is the ethical imperative of architecture?

As architects, I think we hold an awesome responsibility where we enter into communities as guests—and we need to reframe how we work with communities and we need to implement participatory design. If we exclude people in that process, we create barriers. So, if you’re not designing with equity in mind, you are designing inequitably inherently. When you look at stakeholders, it has to include subject matter experts as well as the community members that will use a project we’re working on. I am of the mindset that architects must shed our egos and embrace the expertise of others. I believe we need to begin with architectural education so that this idea is incorporated into the curriculum—community engagement—because it’s not just a lens. It’s a foundation for design. It’s so rare for communities to bring people together across neighborhood lines to overcome deep seated conflict. But, design can be a tool for community healing.

Jenine Kotob collaborating with a group of people at a round table. Another group is gathered at a table in the background.
“As a practicing architect, for a long time, I kept my personal identity separate from my professional identity,” says Kotob, “[So], I got into this line of work because I believe it is important to look at how to support professionals at every stage of their career.” Courtesy Jenine Kotob.

Why is justice a necessary design ethic?

When it comes to justice, I believe that means we must look at investments, in its various modalities. Like how to support a community’s ability to be resilient. I think it starts by looking at systems of inequity that have led to disenfranchisement. It is known that the physical environment can say a lot about one’s life expectancy and future – danger and harm is tied to an individual’s zip code, ethnicity, gender. We have the data and we have the research to see this happening in real time, and as architects we have the control to understand that data and do something with it. From a social justice imperative, I think about the gaps in a community’s neighborhood—do they have access to healthy food, to shared public spaces for children, and so on. So, from a design perspective, an architect’s work goes beyond the job site and it extends into the community itself. As an architect, I cannot continue to ignore the invisible boundaries and systems that control areas that we live within.

We hear a lot about “leadership” and “equity” in the profession, and the responsibilities that those words represent. What do you think really prepares an architect to assume those responsibilities on the various pathways to licensure? 

I see this as an opportunity for businesses and their firm leaders to move beyond the bottom line as the sole driver for their success. I look towards the research on multi-generational workplaces, which shows that the incoming workforce wants alignment between where they work and the values they hold. We live in a world where everything is integrated—working in virtual and hybrid settings where the old lines of home and office are blurred. And based on the data, we know students exiting architecture university settings constitute the most diverse workforce we’ve ever seen. So, if architects want to lead a world-class profession, they need to keep up with technology and healthcare and other industries. For this next generation’s leaders, they will bring the transformation we need—and I’m so inspired by what I see. In terms of career pathways, I think it is important to think about how students are being prepared. In school, architectural students can be prepared for an increasingly complex world by being given opportunities for exploration and curiosity. When combined with design-thinking, electives like economics, public health, planning, and other disciplines outside of traditional architecture studios, can strengthen our students to be greater leaders in the world.

What are some concepts that you think the next generation of architects will have to redefine or, in some cases, define for the first time?

I think that—in workplaces specifically—intercultural competencies are going to be critical to understanding identity. In society, we don’t talk about identity in a nuanced way and what it means. We don’t break down those monolithic understandings of people as much as we should. For instance, BIPOC is a term and a buzzword, but it doesn’t say a lot. How do we talk about the real complexities that make up a lot more people’s sense of identity, and how that creates common threads? Once we answer that, then we can attack the challenges—that’s how we move from aspiration to action. I’m worried about diversity, equity, and inclusion as a unified concept because it’s riddled with challenges when it comes to implementation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Bankable Transformation: Liberty Trust Hotel

The seven-story, Classical Revival-style bank in Roanoke, Virginia opened in 1910 as home to First National Bank. Today, the interiors of the Liberty Trust Building — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark — have been transformed by Glavé & Holmes Architecture (G&HA) into Roanoke’s newest boutique hotel.

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Rehabilitation Case Study: Norfolk Botanical Garden’s Administration Building

The Norfolk Botanical Garden was established in 1939 as the Norfolk Azalea Garden. It was a WPA funded project employing over 200 African American women to clear 75 acres of land and plant more than 4,000 azaleas and other shrubs. As the garden and its mission expanded, a complex of buildings was added in the early 1960s including the Administration Building, a café and restroom facilities.

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