On February 28, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to approve Harbour Square’s application for historic designation. The application was submitted by the owners of Harbour Square, and prepared by architectural historian Peter Sefton. As an historic landmark, Harbour Square takes its place in the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites, alongside Tiber Island, Potomac Place Tower, Arena Stage, and other historic landmarks in Southwest. The Board further recommended that Harbour Square’s nomination be forwarded to the National Register of Historic Places with a recommendation for listing at the national level of significance.
Designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, Harbour Square was completed in 1966 and includes 430 apartment units housed in multi-story buildings and 10 single-unit row houses. Smith’s design seamlessly incorporates some of the District’s oldest existing residential structures, including Wheat Row (1794), the Barney House (1794), and the Lewis House (1817). These buildings, which were designated as historic landmarks in 1963, were saved from demolition during the urban renewal era and subsequently incorporated into the Harbour Square development, making it one of the city’s first major historic adaptive reuse projects. Smith introduced many design concepts that are still utilized within urban historic districts today: breaking down large, new construction into smaller components to improve its scale and avoid relentless repetition; varying heights and streetscapes, but relating to the size and scale to historic buildings; using building materials compatible with traditional buildings; and deferring to the primacy of historic buildings in setting the visual character.
The Historic Preservation Office report found that Harbour Square is characterized by its plantings and hardscape, designed by the acclaimed landscape architect Dan Kiley, who had previously collaborated with Smith on Capitol Park. Kiley’s ambitious landscape plan was divided by the buildings themselves into multiple themed gardens, the most impressive being the one-acre “Aquatic Garden,” which contains a pool with its own willow tree on a square island. The pool is the main element of a central courtyard onto which most apartments look, and is also seen through the glassy ground floor of the surrounding buildings. This interpenetrability of interior and exterior spaces and the integration of nature into the urban fabric are hallmarks of modernism. In fact, the Historic Preservation Review Board found that Harbour Square’s green spaces were of “extreme importance” and that “the work of Smith and Kiley together is not separable as part of the overall concept.” The complex was praised as “a benchmark for good design” and “a model for new urban renewal.”
There was a palpable sense of accomplishment among the Harbour Square residents who gathered in the hallway after the Board’s unanimous vote. Marilyn Scarborough, a long-time resident who spearheaded the landmarking project, proudly shared copies of a brochure that the residents had created, entitled “The Art of Harbour Square.” The brochure discussed the history of their community and featured biographies of Smith and Kiley, as well as anecdotes about Harbour Square’s most famous resident, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. It was beautifully illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs contributed by residents. Marilyn said that these brochures would be shared with visitors and prospective buyers so that they would understand Harbour Square’s historic significance and the community’s history.
The Board’s ringing endorsement of Harbour Square’s historic status affirms the significance of Southwest in the architectural, planning, and social history of DC and the nation. As the country’s first urban renewal project, our community was considered a model for the rest of the nation, exemplifying high standards applied to the public sphere. Indeed, the planning, landscaping, and architecture of Harbour Square speak to an idealism for modern urban living that is reflected throughout the Southwest Redevelopment Area. Congratulations to the residents of Harbour Square for their success in preserving one of our community’s treasures!
By Cecille Chen, chair of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly’s History Task Force