Cast-in-place concrete was the touchstone modernist material. When combined with steel reinforcing it allowed for the long-span and tall buildings that late 19th and early 20th Century architects dreamt of. Furthermore, and unlike the steel buried in its slurry, concrete did not corrode or lose strength in fires allowing for it to have a forthright expression without the need for any protective paint, coating, or enclosure. It was able to be left bare and pure as both structure and enclosure. It achieved, in other words, all that could be hoped for in a modern material. Its apogee in the United States was from the late 1950’s until the mid-1970’s and Belmont Avenue East has three consecutive mid-rise condominium buildings – the Shannon, the Highlander, and the Lamplighter – that pay homage to that era. Their mid-century designs have a surprising upside, too.
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The Shannon – the most northern of the trio – is the purest in execution of concrete’s can-do ability. Its enclosing walls both keep out the elements and allow it to easily hold up the Shannon’s dozen floors. The Shannon’s designers were dogmatic in the use of concrete, even when lesser materials (at presumably less cost) would have sufficed. The entry to the car-park is heralded by a pair of simple concrete arches (the wood trellis must have been added later – to ‘soften’ things up). The arches play nicely off the adjacent walls, where one can see a post and beam structure supported by relatively thin bearing walls. This paring is only possible using concrete. Just beyond the arches one can see the Shannon’s additional architectural gems, a car park canopy supported by a single row of columns. Seeing the cantilever that the columns support gets the heart racing. The concrete of the canopy is simultaneously the enclosure and the structure. How cool is that? Opposite the canopy is just a hint at concrete’s other magical property, its plasticity. Note the flared column capitals nicely capturing the small cantilever of the second floor.
A period piece par-excellence, the Shannon even has the most idiosyncratic trope of the 1960s – the waffle slab. Usually found only in community college campuses and schools of architecture, the waffle slab was all the rage until its expensive form work and unnecessary structural redundancy led to its demise. No doubt limited where they could use it due to its expense, the designers opted to broadcast it for all to see by using it on the entry canopy.
Dominating the block to the south is the Highlander. About the same size as the Shannon, it’s a little less of an ideologue in its expressive use of concrete although I imagine the structure is essentially the same. There is no doubt concrete is used in abundance in the Highlander but is more diverse. One can see stucco, concrete’s cousin as well as its direct progeny concrete, block. The Highlander is a bit less adamant, too. Besides straying into a variety of cementitious building products its massing more plastic – carefree even? Below is a portion of the Belmont facing elevation where the designers decided to introduce a little bulge that aligns with the entry. This is only a hint of the downright festivities on the west elevation where an undulating form produces an almost hypnotizing moire of steel guardrails and angled balconies. My favorite part is the textile concrete block wall that shields the parking and swimming pool. Textile blocks (first prominently used by Frank Lloyd Wright in his 1920s Los Angeles bungalows) were fashionable longer than the waffle slab but, unfortunately, they too have gone by the wayside. At the Highlander the blocks make what is a secure, permanent wall, a bit more ephemeral and certainly less foreboding.
Each of the three buildings have an entry canopy that doubles as a porte-cochère (a fancy French term for the carriage entrance). Indicative of their time, one would be hard-pressed to find such an automotive reference front and center in a new housing block; even so, the one that fronts the Lamplighter is especially nice. It appears to be steel-framed with a nifty reference on its underside to what was typically a concrete typology – the folded plate (tongue-in-cheek?). Another great period-piece on the ground floor are the scalloped partition screens which do appear to be concrete.
Many may disdain buildings that prioritize or even proudly proclaim automobile reliance in elements such as the porte-cochère, not to mention the pavement, instead of plantings, that separate the building from the sidewalk. By setting back the building to receive the automobile, a remarkable sidewalk environment has been created with large trees inhabiting the planting strip – trees that may have otherwise been prohibited had the buildings come to the sidewalk edge as is typical for this building type. On balance I prefer a building that properly defines the sidewalk even if the street trees are a little smaller; however, the Shannon, Highlander, and Lamplighter afford a lovely tree canopy and bushy landscape that make the occasional exception to the rule a refreshing addition to the variety of landscapes on Capitol Hill.