In January, the DC Preservation League moved to designate the former Intelsat headquarters an historic landmark. Barbara Bates’ last piece for Forest Hills Connection was on Van Ness Square’s history as an “Ice Palace” and more. Here, she writes about the uniqueness of the Intelsat complex in our neighborhood and on the meaning of the landmark designation.
by Barbara D. Bates
The most unique Modernist-style building in Washington was beautifully showcased this spring by tulips and flowering dogwood, cherry and redbud trees. The International Telecommunications Satellite (INTELSAT) Organization Headquarters Building was designed to be set into the rolling terrain of the landscape taking into consideration patterns of the wind and the sun. Located on an 11.75-acre site between Tilden and Van Ness Streets, and between Connecticut Avenue and International Drive NW, the beauty of technology and nature come together here.
Pamela Scott and Antoinette Lee, in Buildings of the District of Columbia written for the Society of Architectural Historians (1993), consider this building to be the “only outstanding work of contemporary architecture” in the Van Ness area and refer to it as a “Space Age crystal palace.”
Indeed, the organization has spanned the recent history of space technology. In 1961, the United Nations adopted a resolution on peaceful uses of outer space through communication satellites. This was followed by The Communications Satellite Act of 1962, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy, establishing the privately-owned Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) in DC. COMSAT helped set up INTELSAT in August 1964 to ensure that satellite communications capability would be available to all countries. This public-private consortium began with telecommunication agencies from 18 countries, and grew to about 150 members by 2001. In April 1965, INTELSAT I was launched, becoming the first commercial communications satellite in orbit; in the years to follow, the launches of additional satellites in the INTELSAT series would provide for complete global coverage. In July 2001, INTELSAT became the private company, Intelsat, S.A., that it is today.
In need of larger headquarters than their former offices at L’Enfant Plaza, S.W., INTELSAT obtained congressional approval to build on land formerly part of the National Bureau of Standards. In 1979, an international competition was held and the accomplished Australian architect John Hamilton Andrews won the design award; he selected the Boston-based architectural firm of Anderson, Notter, Finegold, Inc. for his partner.
Construction was carried out in two phases incorporating two design requirements: That at least 70 percent of the office space have natural light and a view; and that it be energy efficient. Phase I began in 1982 and INTELSAT moved into its new headquarters in 1985. The main entrance then as now is at 3400 International Drive, with a second entrance on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street at 4000 Connecticut Avenue. Phase II, the southern-most wing, was finished in 1986.
The complex then consisted of 13 interlocking octagonal glass and aluminum-fronted office modules (referred to as pods), six open atria covered by large mirrored-glass cupolas, 16 circular stair towers of exposed concrete and reflective glass blocks that flank the sides of the office pods. Three of the atria have rounded elevator towers in the center with spiral staircases. The window bands of the office pods are covered with three levels of solar-grey sun screens. The flat roofs of the pods support roof gardens (referred to as green roofs).
A more detailed description of the architectural and energy efficient features can be found in the Application for Historic Landmark Designation for the INTELSAT Organization Headquarters Building submitted by the DC Preservation League and prepared by Trustee John DeFerrari. A copy can be found here, at the website of the District’s Historic Preservation Office.
Over the years, a number of entities have leased office space in this building. In December 1988, WJLA-TV moved from their former Television Center at 4461 Connecticut Avenue into two of the pods located at 3007 Tilden Street. The six-story facility housed the television offices in one pod, and two studios, a computerized news room, and satellite facilities in the other pod. Later, the DC Office of Motion Picture and Television Development moved in, followed by the DC Office of Cable Television now located there along with Mason Media Group and MedStar Health. Embassies have had their offices in the complex and two still do: The Embassy of Honduras and the Embassy of the Republic of Cameroon. From the park, the playground of the Broadcasters’ Child Development Center is visible.
According to the 2014 Haines Criss+Cross Directory for the District of Columbia, Intelsat as well as SITEL and Swanke Hayden Connell Architects continue to occupy offices at 3400 International Drive. Examples of those previously housed in the complex include the Council for International Exchange of Scholars and the Fulbright Scholarship Program; the University of the District of Columbia and the DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F; and Earth Share. The PNC Bank and Carson Wagonlit Travel were once located in now vacant ground floor spaces off Connecticut Avenue.
In 2008, the International Center Act was further amended to enable the property to be leased to any entity approved by the U.S. Department of State. In 2012, Intelsat sold the building to the New York-based 601 W Companies. When all of the clients move out of the space this summer, 601 W Cos. has plans for a $40 million renovation of the property.
The Washington Business Journal’s Daniel J. Sernovitz has written a series of articles on their purchase and plans for the building. According to these, 601 W Cos. hired VOA Associates, Inc. as part of the architectural team to propose a new look for the building; and the CBRE Group, Inc., that brokered the sale of the building, to manage leasing arrangements. While the new owner has not made public the renovations to be made to the building, the granting of landmark status would not prevent upgrading of building systems or making changes to the interior.
While such designation would limit making substantial changes to the exterior, it does not rule them out. Rather, proposed changes would be subject to review and approval by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board. Examples where significant changes to a designated landmark have been approved are the Sears Building on Wisconsin Avenue (with condos built atop what is now home to Best Buy and the Container Store) and the new plans for the Patterson House on Dupont Circle (which include micro apartments and a seven-story addition).
Neighbors may wish to take a walking tour around the dramatic Intelsat Headquarters Building and its extraordinary landscaped setting before the building is emptied and closed for renovation. Begin with a visit to the lobby of the Intelsat headquarters at 3400 International Drive to see the display of models of satellites developed as part of the INTELSAT series.
Then stroll around the outside of the complex, taking in the landscape and setting until reaching the corner of Van Ness Street and Connecticut Avenue. From there walk up the stairs to the guard entrance at 4000 Connecticut Avenue to get a glimpse of the circular elevator tower and spiral staircase in the center of the atrium, and to sense the majesty of this remarkable building.
Continue the walk south on Connecticut Avenue toward one of the park entrances. On the way, pass the remains of an entrance to the former National Bureau of Standards property; the curb cut for the driveway as well as the gate have been preserved. Enter the park that is open to the public from 6 a.m. to sunset daily.
Meander along the paths and see the playground of the Broadcasters’ Child Development Center through the fence.
Exit on Tilden Street and go into the 3007 Tilden Street entrance for a view of the former home of WJLA-Channel 7, now the quarters of the DC Office of Cable Television and others.
Neighbors may also see the building as Intelsat employees have since they moved in nearly 30 years ago. The company created the book “A Photographic Salute to the Intelsat Building at 3400 International Drive” for retired and current employees on the eve of their departure for new facilities in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The book states “The “Intelsat” Building… will long be remembered by those who worked within its glass-block walls.”