THE MATHER BUILDING has been a Washington landmark since its debut in 1917. In its heyday, it housed film companies and offices of the Royal Italian Navy. Later, it provided office space for the federal and city governments, and the University of the District of Columbia.
But by the time the venerable structure was slated for restoration, it had been abandoned for 20 years. Broken windows peppered the front elevation, and its unique neo-gothic detailing was cracking. A thick layer of pigeon droppings and garbage filled interior spaces where the homeless took refuge. Abandoned file cabinets and bookshelves still held their original contents.
What the 10-story building still had going for it was a sound structure. “[It's] essentially a reinforced concrete frame, with concrete beams and joists, and a masonry backup to the façade,” says Christopher Morrison, a principal at Cunningham + Quill, the firm hired to transform the historic landmark into a 21st-century, mixed-use space.
Step one was gutting and stripping the inside, then floating, staining, and finishing new concrete slabs on each level. Elevators and staircases that had previously claimed prime spots at the front corners were relocated to the center of the building. Windows were replaced, and the aged and damaged terra cotta façade, with its intricate neo-gothic details, underwent an extensive (and tedious) restoration.
Today, the lower floors house visual and performing arts areas, along with affordable live/work spaces for artists. Up above, sleek condos topped by a spectacular penthouse all have the look of polished lofts. Outside, the structure once again reads as an urban icon—its majestic spires, projecting oriels, gable-topped pediments, and meticulous detail on display.
Category: Adaptive re-use project; Entrant/ Architect: Cunningham + Quill Architects, Washington; Developer: The Mather Building Lofts (PN Hoffman), Washington; Builder: Henry Gilford, Gilford Corp., Beltsville, Md.
MASTER PIECES Restoring the cracked, broken, and water-damaged façade of The Mather Building took some detective work, starting with a photometric survey of the entire façade (perspective-corrected photographs that were digitized, mapped, and keyed). “With this map in hand, we then determined, tile by tile, which [parts] needed cleaning, in-situ repair of cracks or glaze, or entire replacement,” says architect Christopher Morrison. If a tile had to be replaced, Morrison's team searched for a suitable intact specimen on the façade from which to manufacture a duplicate. Ensuring a seamless match of old and new involved cleaning the original tile and mortar and then integrating replacement samples that looked suitably weathered.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC.