June 18, 2013

The House that Radio Built: NPR's New Headquarters Celebrates Preservation

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation

NPR’s new headquarters building, where old effortlessly meets shiny and new.
NPR’s new headquarters building, where old effortlessly meets shiny and new.

For most people, moving means cardboard boxes, heavy lifting, and forgetting where you packed your underwear. However, for National Public Radio, a recent relocation meant making something old new again.

NPR’s shiny new headquarters is built atop the National Register-listed Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company Warehouse. As an anchor in an emerging neighborhood, the organization is a terrific example of how preservation supports the future.

National Trust correspondents Jason Clement and Julia Rocchi had the chance to tour the building. Here’s what they thought -- to quote NPR’s “founding mother” Susan Stamberg -- of “the house that radio built.”

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“Third floor: newsroom.”

When you walk into NPR’s new lobby, you immediately notice two things: Susan Stamberg’s voice on the elevator recordings, and the fluted columns. One pays homage to NPR’s role in radio history, while the other celebrates the history of the space.

NPR’s Editorial Product Manager Matt Thompson describes on his tour of the building, “For some reason I have been commissioned to take a few groups on tours of the building so far (and of course I have tons of friends who are, like, ‘I want to see the new NPR building’), and on all my tours I make sure to point out the flooring in the Sound Bites cafe and the telephone booth and the brick wall on one side, and tell folks a little bit about the Potomac and Chesapeake Telephone Company and where the building came from.”

“One of the features that was noted in the nomination to the National Register [of Historic Places] was the fluted columns of the old warehouse, and the architects felt it was really important to celebrate those columns throughout their redesign of the facility,” Maury Schlesinger, the new building’s project director, explains. “As you walk in the building and turn towards our reception area, you’re greeted by this colonnade of these old, fluted columns and the exposed ceiling of the old warehouse, and I think it has been very successful. And in our other portions of the building, of the old building, almost every one of these fluted column capitals have been exposed in the ceiling plane so you’re aware that you’re in the old portion of the building.”

It’s certainly not NPR’s first moving rodeo. This is their fourth headquarters in over 40 years, and with each move, Susan Stamberg says, “everything was going to get better.”

“I was here from the very beginning, a member of the original staff, and we started out on 16th and Eye Streets in northwest Washington in an office that had no furniture," Stamberg recalls. "I mean, we got there so early that furniture had not been ordered yet or anyway it hadn’t arrived.

"So that was the beginning, there were maybe sixty of us. Happily we moved over to M Street, 2025 M here in Washington, and that was a much better space and we thought, gosh we’re in a palace. And we outgrew it -- what an amazing thing! -- after a while and happily then moved to 635 Massachusetts Avenue. We thought, what a palace!

“Each time we made the move we said, everything’s going to be better in the new building. We kept telling ourselves that and guess what? After X number of years there, we moved here -- and everything is better in this new building.”

Open and on deadline – a look inside the main newsroom.
Open and on deadline -- a look inside the main newsroom.

Sitting at the site of NPR’s new headquarters at 1111 North Capitol St. was the National Register-listed Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company Warehouse. Built in 1927 to house the repair facilities for the company’s service trucks as well as the telephones themselves, the reinforced concrete structure played a critical role in expanding telephone service for the D.C. metro area after usage skyrocketed during World War I. At one point, the building also served as a place to store and build sets for various museum exhibits of the Smithsonian Institution.

Though D.C.-based firm Hickok Cole, which designed the space, called for partial demolition of the historic warehouse in their reuse plans, they recognized its historic significance to the city’s past and to the neighborhood’s identity.

As such, they worked closely with the Historic Preservation Review Board - Office of Planning to maintain many of the warehouse’s important elements, including its historic facade and the mushroom-shaped support beams, which retain their original numbering system. They also incorporated used bricks from the building’s original smokestack into the employee cafe (appropriately named ‘Sound Bites’) as a reminder of the former structure.

The new portion of the site’s development was also designed to complement the historic warehouse. It incorporated precast concrete to match the color tone and weight of the warehouse’s appearance, and also used colored glass inserts (or “fans/fins”) to lighten the overall look of the property.

The result is a bright, airy, multi-level environment that lets employees flow freely amid state-of-art studio space, open office areas, and a variety of collaborative spaces.

“What’s interesting about the way the historic portion [of this building] was incorporated is that the newsroom level -- the two levels on the third and fourth floor -- go across both [old and new buildings],” says Yolanda Cole, senior principal owner of Hickok Cole Architects. “And as you move into the new section there are not mushroom columns but typical concrete [modern concrete columns]. So in a way it kind of morphs from one to the other while maintaining identity on both sides of the building.”

Stu Rushfeld, technical director for All Things Considered, comments, “The original warehouse I guess had some great lighting. We came from a place where fluorescent was the lighting of choice and we have lots of natural lighting in this building which is really nice. I think it does something for people’s moods, for one, and just being inside a studio -- I've never worked in another building where the studios actually had some natural light. So that’s really cool because you’re normally just feeling like you’re in a cave, and this place is open and lighter and brighter and I think that makes everyone kind of happy.”

Is this thing on?
"Is this thing on?" New recording studios at 1111 North Capitol St.

What’s also attractive, says Schlesinger, is having the chance to support another DC neighborhood.

“This building was made ‘historic’ partially to keep some character of the old industrial neighborhood as this part of D.C. merges into downtown,” he explains. “This is what’s being called an emerging urban neighborhood. It is amongst the last developable land adjacent to downtown, adjacent to Capitol Hill, and the predominant amount of new development will be of office and residential [development]. So how do you preserve the old, industrial character of the old neighborhood? By preserving some of that architectural heritage.

“We had moved into our previous building on Mount Vernon Square when that neighborhood was in decline and helped stabilize it, from an urban development viewpoint, and we saw that neighborhood develop around us as the first MCI, now Verizon Center, was developed and the Convention Center and the entertainment nature of 7 Street got developed and we were sitting there and we enjoyed the prosperity of that development.

“We then took advantage of that. [We] basically got priced out of the market, we couldn’t continue to live there and grow so we sort of took our profits and moved somewhere else, like a starving artist who gets, you know, the artist who first establishes in a fringe neighborhood and then has to move on, so now we’re in the next fringe neighborhood.”

But in the end, this place where things have always been made has a second chance at life -- this time, supporting those who make the news.

“I think that’s the best part of it, the fact that we are embraced, we are held as modernism,” Stamberg concludes. “Within the embrace is something that has been here for many, many, many years: an old Art Deco building, beautifully designed, which we upped and sort of fixed and gave a facelift to so that it looks better, I’m sure, than it ever did even when it was brand new.”

Check out the slideshow for more images from Julia's and Jason's tour of NPR's new headquarters:

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Additional reporting by David Robert Weible


NPR is an award-winning, multimedia news organization that reaches 26 million radio listeners each week, and nearly 20 million people monthly on digital platforms. In collaboration with more than 900 independent public radio stations nationwide, NPR strives to provide the public with a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures. To find local stations and broadcast times, visit www.npr.org/stations.

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