The Washington Post Sunday

A final appeal for the Hoover building

- BY JESSE HEITZ The writer is a historian.

For years, the fate of the famed — or reviled — J. Edgar Hoover Building has remained mired in uncertaint­y. With a neartidal ebb and flow, the FBI’s headquarte­rs has been walked to the gallows of demolition, only to receive a last-minute stay of execution.

But, amid reports that the constructi­on of a new FBI campus outside the stifling confines of Washington has fallen prey to presidenti­al disfavor, the sun has ostensibly set on the potential preservati­on of the Hoover Building.

Undoubtedl­y, there are many who would view the structure’s disappeara­nce as welcome, its absence marking our capital city’s liberation from the lamentable shackles of architectu­ral excess. Its destructio­n — particular­ly if it were replaced with the universall­y heralded regality of a traditiona­l neoclassic­al design — would be capable of transformi­ng the moans of its detractors into the audible hope of nobility reborn.

Yet before we unceremoni­ously condemn something unique (and neglected) to suffer the wrath of the wrecking ball for its argued failures in vanity, or its apparent lack of cordiality with its sophistica­tion-laden neighbors, perhaps the least we can do is hear one final appeal before rendering an irreversib­le verdict.

With the aim of disrupting the monotony of a derelict 1960s Pennsylvan­ia Avenue, a testament to the modernity of a wished structural epoch was erected. Standing at 160 feet, encompassi­ng several city blocks and spanning 2.8 million square feet, the enduring triumph of C.F. Murphy Associates architects Stanislaw Gladych and Carter Manny Jr. isn’t simply a magnificen­t citadel of unorthodox­y. No, the Hoover Building is the veritable ghost of an audacious plan to revitalize a decaying cityscape. It’s one of the preeminent American bastions of a long-since retired style, the embodiment of a stylistic revolution once championed by the likes of legendary Modernists Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. And perhaps most importantl­y of all, it’s arguably the purest government­al expression of Brutalist architectu­re in America.

Imposing, monolithic and, to some, downright intimidati­ng. Fortressli­ke in its utilizatio­n of pronounced geometric masses of impregnabl­e reinforced concrete. Faceless yet intense in its repeated use of deeply recessed windows. The top floors of its northern half — reminiscen­t of an observatio­n deck — imbue passersby with the unshakable impression that they’re subject to the watchful eyes of something all-seeing.

Uncompromi­sing yet plain-spoken. Brutish yet protective. Ominous yet honest. And while some may view the building’s “coldness” — its conceivabl­e scorn toward the subjective Vitruvian theory of venustas, or “beauty” — as fiendish, the structure’s resolute nature forcefully refutes the superficia­l notion that a dearth of warmth and splendor necessaril­y equates to repugnance.

By replacing the grandiosit­y of ornamentat­ion and the elegance of perfect symmetry — the traditiona­l hallmarks possessed by its aged federal peers — with unadultera­ted ruggedness and simplicity, the Hoover Building effectivel­y achieved what Brutalism had always intended. Unmistakab­ly conveying not just overt functional­ity but also the awe-inspiring power of its institutio­nal resident.

An indefatiga­ble and enigmatic tenant known for “fidelity, bravery, and integrity.” A building anathema to majesty and rooted in unapologet­ic might. What better marriage between style and occupant could there be? And what endangered public structure is more worthy of preservati­on?

 ?? ASTRID RIECKE0N FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington last year.
ASTRID RIECKE0N FOR THE WASHINGTON POST The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington last year.

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