West Heating Plant, Washington, DC

The West Heating Plant is situated at the northeast corner of 29th and K Streets, N.W. and consists of four units - the heating plant itself, the coal and ash house, the storage yard, and the steam distribution lines. The component parts work in close conjunction with each other to generate and supply heat to several government buildings in the northwest quadrant of the District. Cast in the mold of the Central Heating Plant (1933-34) - a monumental, buff-colored structure replete with Art-Deco flourishes such as rhythmically recessed and projecting wall planes, curved walls, and abstract imagery - the West Heating Plant echoes its pyramidal composition, recessed and streamlined entry bay, and buff-colored brick exterior. However, unlike the Central Heating Plant which is a robust interpretation of the Art Deco style, the West Heating Plant is realized in an simplified Art Deco style. The building, a muscular steel and masonry structure, relies upon the interaction of large cubic masses for architectural effect. The superposition of progressively smaller cubes results in a stepped -pyramid composition within which the main block of the building, the entrance and stacks are articulated as discrete, yet related, units. The structural steel skeleton of the building is clad in buff colored brick. The solidity of the brick surfaces is relieved by bays of industrial windows. The rhythmic juxtaposition of solids and voids generates a tension that enlivens the facade. The building rests on a random rubble base from which rise four stories of brick and glass. A vestigial cornice of dressed, stone masonry encircles the stages of the building. The stacks are discretely camouflaged as a single, crowning mass. The focal point of the primary elevation (or west or 29th Street elevation) is the entrance bay. The west elevation presents a monumental face which is pierced by a linear bay of windows that are seventy-two feet high. The brick walls curve inward to meet the recessed main entrance windows. The secondary elevations - along K Street and the C & O Canal - are similar and consist of a flat brick surface pierced by uniform banks of industrial-type windows. The rear or east elevation, facing Rock Creek, is a modified version of the facade; the linearity of the seventy-two feet high window bay is continued as a rolling steel door at the ground level. Although only the northwest and southwest corners of the building are chamfered, all four corners have rusticated brickwork that echo the rustication of the stone base and surrounding wall. The composition is further unified by the granite beltcourse and cornice. The interior of the heating plant building is devoured by the equipment, machinery and maze of catwalks from the basement level through to the fifth floor. On the second floor a small space in the western portion of the building is occupied by an office, and conference and storage room. Glazed terra cotta and ceramic tiles protect the walls and floors throughout the building against wear and tear. Originally constructed with a capacity for six boilers, two were installed upon the completion of the building. Three additional boilers were subsequently installed. The five boilers together generate approximately 9 million tons of steam per hour. The steam is distributed to Federal buildings through a steam tunnel that exits from the southeast corner of the plant and jogs along K Street and Virginia Avenue before it connects, at 21st & D Streets, with the pre-existing lines of the Central Heating Plant. The perimeter of the site is defined by a random rubble masonry wall that wraps around the fuel storage yard. The site, however, is composite as K Street divides the main plant from the Coal and Ash House. The Coal and Ash House, propitiously sited to straddle the tracks of the B & O Railroad, no longer is a vital cog in the chain of heat production. As natural gas is currently the principal fuel source, coal reserves are maintained for supplemental or emergency use. Juxtaposition of cubic masses; the use of buff-colored brick in the treatment of exterior walls; and the rustication of the corners results in a building similar in spirit to the main building across the road. A concrete block shed built to the southwest of the original Coal and Ash House serves as a storage shed. The West Heating Plant has been altered in the past four decades. Most of the changes are mechanical or electrical and relate to the refurbishing and upgrading of equipment. The architectural character of the heating plant remains largely intact.

The West Heating Plant, completed in 1948, was designed by W.M. Dewey Foster (b. 1890), a private architect. The West Heating Plant generates and supplies fuel to the western group of Federal buildings. As coal was the principal source of fuel, the plant was conveniently sited adjacent to the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Authorized as part of the Federal Works Agency's building program, the project was managed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood (d. 1961), Supervising Architect for FWA's Public Buildings Administration. The cornerstone was laid in 1946, and the project was brought to completion at a cost of approximately 7.8 million dollars with Charles H. Tompkins Company of Washington, D.C. serving as the contractors.

Upon its opening, the West Heating Plant burned approximately 900 tons of coal per day, and served government buildings north of 15th and C Streets, N.W. At full capacity the plant could generate 1,000,000 pounds of steam per hour. The essential components of the West Heating plant are the main building to house the boilers and adjunct mechanical equipment; a coal-receiving and ash-processing building; a enclosed yard for coal storage; and pipes for steam distribution to various government building. The Heating plant building forms the nucleus of this composition, with all the other components either feeding into or from it.

The West Heating Plant is a six-story, near monolithic structure realized in a vestigial Art Deco style. The solidity of the brick exterior is relieved by rhythmic, linear fenestration - the whole depending upon the play of voids against solids for architectural effect. The coal house and ash house, sited in close proximity to the main heating plant building, echoes the plant's architectural composition - both in terms of massing and material.

The West Plant was to supply heat to existing and future government buildings in downtown, thereby providing relief to the overburdened Central Heating Plant at 13th and C Streets, S.W. Appropriations required for the construction of the West Heating Plant were made in 1940 as the plant was "a necessity not only for serving the needs of additional space facilities which are developing in connection with the national defense program but also as a supplement to the present plant in taking over part of the load in the event of a breakdown." (Quoted in "Washington Evening Star," June 23, 1940). Additional appropriations were made in 1941 setting construction costs at 7 million dollars. The project was commenced in March 1942, but was suspended in September as the United States' entry into World War II required steel for battleship construction. With the end of the War in 1945, construction on the West plant was resumed with urgency as the Central Plant was now serving over 130 buildings in the District. A steam distribution network was established in which a primary tunnel radiated from the West Heating Plant, ran along Virginia Avenue, and interfaced with the old system at 21st and D Streets, NW.

The original boilers in the West Heating Plant have been modified and augmented since 1948. Additional machinery including chillers and tanks throughout the heating plant have been reconfigured, altered and replaced over the last four decades. The capacity of the two original boilers has been augmented by three additional boilers, and the plant has moved from a coal-based fuel source to one capable of running on coal, natural gas or oil. Significantly, however, the building, constructed as the complementary heating facility to the Central Heating Plant, continues today in it original use as the West Heating Plant of the General Services Administration - serving one hundred Federal buildings in the District.

The West Heating Plant is not listed within the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites as an Individual Landmark, but is located within the Georgetown Historic District.

Description Architect
1946 1948 Original Construction W.M. Dewey Foster
1983 Interior Painting
1984 Fire Protection Sysyem
1987 PCB Transformer Replacement
1988 Boiler Plant Upgrading. Boiler #4 Baghouse
Last Reviewed: 2017-09-19