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Old is New: Revitalizing The Anacostia Riverfront 

The new Lumber Shed building in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Riverfront area. Image © Prakash Pratel

A version of this post originally appeared on Jordan Goldstein's personal blog

Growing up in the D.C. area in the late 70’s and 80’s, I knew Washington as a one-river town. The Potomac was the water body that defined the city, while the Anacostia River was the polluted waterway that I rarely heard about. The Potomac was (and is) the iconic waterway that so many associate with D.C. It serves as a shimmering backdrop to sun kissed photos of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, and the Kennedy Center. Tourists walk along West Potomac Park, with rowers in the backdrop, their sculls seemingly floating above the surface.

Throughout my youth, I only caught glimpses of the Anacostia, usually when parking at RFK for Redskins games. I’m not sure then that I even knew the name of it. Then along came Nat’s Stadium, which created a destination in a part of town that had long been a pass-through. Now, there’s new life along the Anacostia riverfront. Buildings that had been vacant and falling apart are experiencing a new life.

But it wasn’t until Gensler began work with the real estate development company Forest City at the former Navy Yard Annex that I began to appreciate a side of the city that was previously foreign to me. The first time I visited the Yards site in 2005, it was a barren land with dilapidated former factory buildings and a river’s edge riddled with debris and rubble of the former piers. Two things stick out in my mind from that day: the surprise of walking down to the river and seeing this wide, curving, largely unused waterway, and the excitement of seeing factory buildings that had so much potential. (It’s rare to find old industrial buildings in D.C.; the city has federal office buildings to spare, but spaces that once harbored manufacturing are more common to nearby Baltimore.)

In 2006, we began our collaboration with Forest City. We focused our efforts on two historic buildings in the former Navy Yard annex just east of Nat’s Stadium: the Boilermaker building and Lumber Shed building. Through adaptive reuse, these two unique buildings are now experiencing new leases on life.

The renovated Boilermaker. Image © Prakash Pratel

Adaptive reuse is all about repurposing existing architecture for new uses. When working with historic structures, a good bit of forensic architecture work is involved. You have to identify what was original to the building and what was added on throughout the building's ensuing nine lives.

The Boilermaker is a purposeful building constructed circa 1919. It features a central space a block long, high ceilings and an internal crane that lofted giant boilers and swung them down the assembly line. Massive walls of windows flooded the factory floor with natural light, where workers worked on the pieces and parts of World War I and II warships.

After the war, the Boilermaker had many lives. It functioned as an indoor parking lot and a storage facility, and even experienced a brief brush with fame when it served as the backdrop for the Kevin Bacon horror flick, Hollow Man (even buildings can play six degrees of Kevin Bacon).

Modern graphics help give the Boilermaker a strong aesthetic. Image © Prakash Pratel

Our renovation of the historic structure included replacing all of the glass while preserving and repairing as much of the steel window frames as possible. We added new steel to create second floor loft office, and repositioned the ground level to be a series of independent retail spaces that open to a new, wide plaza. What was once a single use factory is now a mixed-use building replete with restaurants and cafés.

The Lumber Shed. Image © Prakash Pratel

Situated right on the edge of the river, the Lumber Shed building was originally an open-air pavilion used for the drying of lumber during World War II. It even had train tracks that ran right up the middle of its shed.

For the adaptive reuse of this building, rather than install opaque facades that would mask the raw concrete and industrial aesthetic, we wrapped the structure with a modern glazing: a sleek, glass wrapper for an historic structure. The result is a gem of a building that looks like a jewel box in the middle of a waterfront park.

Now amazing new restaurants including Bluejacket and Osteria Morini populate the ground floor of the Boilermaker and Lumber Shed. And Forest City has new offices with incredible views on the second floor of the Lumber Shed.

Restaurants populate the new Lumber Shed. Image © Prakash Pratel

Instead of knocking down unique structures, we used adaptive reuse to imbue them with a new purpose. This has allowed historic architecture to contribute to a revitalized community's burgeoning aesthetic in a way that animates a once neglected waterway. For me, it was a great lesson in thinking differently about older buildings and working with a creative development team to think out of the box about reuse.

Jordan Goldstein is co-managing director of Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office, where he leads award-winning projects in mixed use, hospitality, retail, education and brand strategy. Jordan’s work spans the globe with current projects in China, Thailand, and Washington, DC. A firm believer in the power of design education, Jordan is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches a course in product design. Jordan was also named as one of the “40-Under-40” national industry leaders in Building Design & Construction magazine in 2006 and by the Washington Business Journal in 2011. Contact him at jordan_goldstein@gensler.com.

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