Tourists never notice it, but then neither do most locals. Behold: Alto Towers, catty-corner to the National Cathedral at 3206 Wisconsin Ave NW.
Alto Towers went up in 1932, in the heyday of D.C. suburbanization. This eight-storey apartment house is the work of Arthur B. Heaton, a half-forgotten architect who’s partly responsible for the look and feel of northwest Washington—and who was, briefly, an unabashed medievalist.
Heaton was ridiculously versatile. In 1901, he built Tudor Revival apartments and later designed the Altamont, a local apartment house with an Italian Renaissance twist. In 1914 and 1931, he put Classic Revival additions on the National Geographic Society building. In 1926, he gave his (now-demolished) Capital Garage a funny, car-themed facade, and his interest in the automobile led him to design our local “Park and Shop,” the prototypical strip mall, in a Colonial Revival style. Heaton oversaw the construction of new facilities on the GWU campus while also designing banks, churches, and countless other D.C. buildings and homes, apparently without ever developing an identifiable “Heaton style.”
…and that’s what makes Alto Towers a treat for the medievalist. Take a gander at the entryway.
When Heaton wasn’t serving as president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, co-founding the Washington Building Congress, or spearheading the “Renovize” movement during the Depression, he was also, from 1908 through 1920, the supervising architect for the National Cathedral, where he helped chief architect Henry Vaughan oversee construction during the cathedral’s first 12 years.
In 1932, more than a decade after Heaton’s time there, the cathedral was little more than an overgrown apse festooned with a few angelic grotesques. Given a chance to design an apartment house across the street, Heaton—who could have built damn near anything—set loose his inner medievalist.
Those snarling, gargoylish grotesques are the most blatantly cool thing about Alto Towers, but the whole arcaded entryway is a neo-medieval romp.
The quatrefoils (four-leaf clovers) in the spandrels (the warped triangles above each arch) are pretty standard, but those thick, gabled supports are an architect’s fancy. Each one resembles a cathedral buttress while also containing blind tracery of a Gothic arch.
At Alto Towers, periods and cultures trip over one another and have a good laugh. The pine cone finials hark back to ancient buildings and the medieval fascination thereof, while those funny little nubs at the tops of the smaller arches—including the little ones in the triforium, the upper row—strike me as very American. Meanwhile, on both sides of the interior of each large arch are squared, Art Deco-ish shadows of Corinthian columns. Behind them, the brick-lined inner doors whisper “Cordoba” in an American accent.
Most of Alto Towers is plain brick, but Heaton decorated just enough of its topmost level to show that the neo-medievalish entryway wasn’t an afterthought.
Note the two types of ornamented shield. They may be purely decorative, but I’ll gladly send a free book to any heraldry buff who can show that they’re meaningful.
While Heaton’s 1926 Capital Garage (PDF with photo) featured large, leonine gargoyles, Alto Towers is his full medievalist statement, the rhapsody of a restless architect who knew he wouldn’t live to see the cathedral completed.
When Heaton died in December 1951 at 76, the new apartment buildings rising around the cathedral were blocky and bland. Today, tourists tromp right past them, fixated on the promise of sighting quirky gargoyles on the Gothic spires beyond.
Of course, the cathedral’s first proper gargoyles weren’t put in place until around 1960, so if the beasties at Alto Towers forever bare their fangs, I can’t really blame them. No one remembers that they were here first.