The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO -

Once for­got­ten, an odd brick tower was saved dur­ing a 2005 ren­o­va­tion at Ju­di­ciary Square.

A strange brick tower sits near the D.C. Court of Ap­peals. It looks real old. Can you find out what it is and why it is still there? — Mary Frances

Ro­nan, Alexan­dria Imag­ine, if you will, a “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble”-type movie set in the early 20th cen­tury. The Im­pos­si­ble Mis­sions team must thwart an at­tempt to kid­nap Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt that they know will take place at the District Court­house at Fifth and In­di­ana NW.

Ac­tu­ally, what the team wants is to spirit Roo­sevelt away and re­place him with a body dou­ble — one of their op­er­a­tives wear­ing a life­like gutta-per­cha mask (fash­ioned by sculp­tor Daniel Ch­ester French, as it hap­pens). Once kid­napped, the fake Teddy will be able to in­fil­trate the crim­i­nal ring, which is work­ing at the be­hest of wealthy rail­road mag­nates op­posed to Roo­sevelt’s trust­bust­ing.

With An­swer Man so far?

But how to slip in and out of the build­ing un­seen? Well, how does any com­mando get into a build­ing? Through a ven­ti­la­tion shaft, of course. And that is what that tower is.

The build­ing that is to­day the D.C. Court of Ap­peals was de­signed by ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Had­field and built in 1820, orig­i­nally to serve as Wash­ing­ton’s City Hall. The brick tower it­self was not erected un­til the 1880s, when the build­ing housed var­i­ous courts as well as the Civil Ser­vice Com­mis­sion. (And who served on that com­mis­sion and had an of­fice there? That’s right: Teddy Roo­sevelt.)

The tower was part of a sys­tem that sucked in fresh air and pumped it through the build­ing.

“Be­neath it was a hor­i­zon­tal tun­nel big enough for a per­son to walk through,” said Chris Wi­ley, project man­ager at Beyer Blin­der Belle, the ar­chi­tec­tural firm re­spon­si­ble for the court­house’s 2005 ren­o­va­tion. “It en­tered the lower level of the court­house through the foun­da­tion walls and went to the me­chan­i­cal equip­ment room.”

It was not air con­di­tion­ing, per se, but it did al­low air to move around, pro­vid­ing some re­lief from Wash­ing­ton’s sul­try sum­mers.

In the re­cent ren­o­va­tion, Beyer Blin­der Belle ar­chi­tect Hany Has­san moved the court­house en­trance from the south side to the north side and placed a hand­some glass box fac­ing E Street NW.

An un­der­ground park­ing garage was also added as part of the ren­o­va­tion. That re­quired tem­po­rar­ily mov­ing the brick vent shaft and the nearby Dar­ling­ton Memo­rial Foun­tain.

The shaft, Has­san said, was com­pletely cov­ered with ivy “to the point that it al­most looked like a shrub of sorts. You couldn’t even see the struc­ture.”

Some peo­ple in­volved with the project thought that the tower — about eight feet wide and 14 feet tall — should have been taken apart and then re­assem­bled.

“I said ab­so­lutely not,” said Has­san, who was im­pressed by the cir­cu­lar per­fec­tion of the tower, its fine brick­work, thin bands of mor­tar and slate cap­stone. “I knew if they dis­man­tled it, it would never come back to­gether again.”

In­stead, work­ers were able to dig around the shaft’s foun­da­tion, make a cou­ple of holes and in­sert steel beams to sup­port the struc­ture. (They’re called nee­dle beams.) The tower was welded in­side a steel frame, then lifted up with a crane by United Rig­ging and set down nearby.

There it sat for a cou­ple of years as the park­ing garage was com­pleted. The tower was put back in al­most the same place, just a few feet over. It sits next to a small glass and stone build­ing that serves as the el­e­va­tor and stair en­clo­sure for the park­ing garage. (The Dar­ling­ton Memo­rial Foun­tain was also re­stored.)

Has­san said he never con­sid­ered de­mol­ish­ing the shaft and cart­ing away its re­mains. One rea­son: It was a re­minder that the ex­te­rior of the nearby court­house was orig­i­nally brick cov­ered in stucco. It didn’t re­ceive its In­di­ana lime­stone skin un­til a ren­o­va­tion in 1917.

Fit­tingly, Has­san was able to fig­ure out a way to use the tower. Al­though the court­house’s mod­ern HVAC sys­tem doesn’t need the shaft to draw in fresh air, it does need it to vent air out.

“We have to ex­change warm air,” Wi­ley said. “All we did was change the air flow. It used to suck it in. Now it blows it out.”

On a cold day, you can see what looks like steam ris­ing from the tower. It’s va­por from the air that’s be­ing ex­hausted. And it’s a re­minder of the crafts­men who nearly 140 years ago painstak­ingly cre­ated some­thing that pos­sesses the beauty that can come with util­ity.

The tower, said Has­san, “was not viewed as be­ing an el­e­ment of im­por­tance. I viewed it as be­ing very pre­cious.”


This cir­cu­lar, 19th-cen­tury brick ven­ti­la­tion shaft once drew air into the old D.C. Court of Ap­peals, which was built in 1820.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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