Living on DC's Southwest Waterfront: Cecille's Mid-Century Modern Enclave


May 31, 2012, Washington, DC: From the liveaboard community at Gangplank Marina to the mid-century modern architecture of the Tiber Island and River Park cooperative homes, Southwest DC has its own thing going on. And it's the perfect place for Cecille Chen, a lover of history, architecture, design and modernism. Judging from her explosive involvement in the neighborhood from the moment she moved it, this is clearly what it means to find a natural and built environment that brings out the best in you. This is what it means to be in your element.

The mid-century modern architecture prevalent in Southwest, Washington, DC is a rare find. Designed by esteemed architects including Charles Goodman, the man who designed Reagan Airport and the award-winning Hollin Hills community in northern Virginia, the living spaces of Southwest DC are a dramatic departure from the neoclassical style of the U.S. Capitol building and national landmarks less than a mile away. And despite a recent obsession with all things Mad Men, many people don't even know this enclave of the city exists.

Cecille herself didn't know about it until she began house hunting with her husband.

“I saw these beautiful architectural details, these barrel roofs, these globe lampposts, these clean lines… it’s gorgeous,” she said. “Modernist architecture may be an acquired taste, but these architects had a new vision and they wanted to do something different. That’s what I really appreciate about the modernists. They said, ‘Wait a minute. It doesn’t make sense to just copy the French and the Greeks.”

River Park, Photo Credit: Cecille Chen

Like many, Cecille is a nomad who does her own thing, too: She left her family home in the Philippines in 1997 to attend college in DC, living in various Washington neighborhoods, including Georgetown, Dupont and Cleveland Park before she and her husband stumbled upon at an ad for a barrel-roof townhouse in Southwest's River Park. "I'd never seen anything like it before; I had to go see it, and I fell in love with the neighborhood immediately. I couldn't believe such delightfully radical architecture existed in DC.

In other DC neighborhoods, Cecille didn't know her neighbors beyond an occasional hello in the elevator. Here in Southwest, all that's changed.

“I’ve lived in three different neighborhoods in 15 years in DC and this neighborhood rocks,” she said. "As a volunteer with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, the Southwest Fireworks Festival, and the Titanic Centennial, I met so many people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and work enthusiastically for the benefit of their neighborhood. I haven't seen such community spirit anywhere else in Washington."

To be sure, it's hard to believe Cecille has lived her for only a year and a half. She has a near encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood’s architecture and history and she has become a passionate community advocate since January 2011.

In that short time, Cecille has spoken up alongside her equally involved neighbors to preserve the unique aesthetics and history of this neighborhood on the brink of redevelopment; has taken a place on the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly's history task force; developed a website called the Southwest DC Heritage Project; spearheaded a massive commemoration earlier this spring honoring the 100th anniversary of the Titantic tragedy at the neighborhood's waterfront Titanic Memorial; and made the case for digital signage throughout the neighborhood that would share its history with visitors. Cecille wants anyone getting off at the Waterfront Metro station to know just how close history is, whether directing them to the Thomas Law house where Martha Washington's granddaughter once lived, to Fort McNair, where conspirators in the Lincoln assassination were tried and executed, to Westminster Church for weekly jazz nights, or through the zen-like calm of the concrete plaza in the community where she lives.

Westminster Church, Photo Credit: Cecille Chen

Titanic Memorial, Photo Credit: Cecille Chen

Thomas Law House, Photo Credit: Cecille Chen

More recently, Cecille testified with other Southwesters before the DC Historic Preservation Review Board in support of the landmark nomination of Tiber Island; the Board subsequently voted to include Tiber Island in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites. Another neighborhood modernist development, Harbour Square, is being considered for landmark designation, too. Featuring beautifully landscaped gardens and large reflecting pool, its architect was Chloethiel Woodard Smith, a female pioneer in a field once dominated by men.

Cecille says the unique history of Southwest DC in part explains the cohesion among her neighbors. Once geographically isolated from the rest of the city by a now filled-in Tiber Creek, the area evolved into a busy working waterfront that was home to low-income black and immigrant families. Those families were later evicted and the neighborhood was completely razed in the 1950s and 60s after it was chosen for a massive experiment in urban renewal.

“First there was a creek, and then urban renewal, and then 395 was built," Cecille said. "It was always cut off a bit. I think that still contributes to the sense of community among the people here.”

Modernist architecture emerged on the Southwest Waterfront scene next: Goodman designed the River Park Mutual Homes while Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon designed the Tiber Island development. Cecille recently found old photos and articles from the 1960s that served as the marketing materials for Tiber island; they emphasize many of the elements seen here today. The modernist architects crafted plans in which nature and city life coexisted. They did not build on a grid, but instead positioned buildings to ensure that no one would look into someone else's windows. They built expansive plazas with stately fountains and intimate courtyard spaces landscaped with abundant greenery. Wide expanses of glass bring nature into the home; an organic relationship with one's natural environment is a hallmark of modernism.

Original marketing materials for Tiber Island

Yet another makeover is in the works today for this neighborhood on the Southwest Waterfront. Slated to begin next year, the waterfront redevelopment plans mean Southwest DC is poised to look and feel very different in the near future. Cecille agrees that this Washington waterfront is underutilized and looks forward to various elements of the redevelopment, but she also understands why some residents would like Southwest to remain just as is it, and shares an appreciation for the small-town feel cherished by many.

She is also hopeful developers will recognize the importance of the waterfront community at Gangplank Marina and the mid-century modern aesthetic of the community and the values upon which it is built.

“Community development would be welcome," Cecille said. "I’ve seen the developer's plans and they’ve made an effort to create engaging public spaces. I hope they realize that the liveaboards are essential to the social fabric of our waterfront community. I do wish they’d be more sensitive to the prevailing architectural style of Southwest. From an aesthetic point of view, we have mid-century modern here, clean lines, elegance and restraint… I think the architectural noise of what they’re proposing is adding to the discomfort of a community that is already bracing itself for increased commercialization, traffic and disruption.”

“I believe it is critical to let people know the significance of what we have here–unique, modernist architecture that maximizes open space," she said. "It's a rarity in today's real estate market, where profit-driven developments maximize square footage even if it means compromising the quality of the living space. We have something special here and we need to preserve it.”

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Waterfront Park, Photo Credit: Cecille Chen