Board names Fannie Mae a historic landmark, supports planned redevelopment

The Fannie Mae headquarters is located at 3900 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/December 2016)

The Fannie Mae headquarters was unanimously named a landmark and concept designs for a planned redevelopment were largely supported at the Historic Preservation Review Board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

The landmark designation only applies to original buildings close to the street at 3900 Wisconsin Ave. NW, including the central property and its matching side wings that were built in 1958 and 1963, respectively.

The application was filed by developers to defuse community concerns about the planned project, they said. “This property, in our opinion, is iconic,” developer Richard Lake said at the hearing. “We’re excited about utilizing the existing structure.”

The proposed mixed-use project — which includes adaptive reuse of the newly designated buildings as well as new construction — is set to include residential apartments, a hotel, a public lawn and square, and a range of retailers anchored by an 80,000-square-foot Wegmans grocery store. The fate of the memorable Fannie Mae sign has yet to be discerned.

The sprawling estate remained closed to the public for much of its life, operating since the late 1970s as the private offices of the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae. Roadside Development and North America Sekisui House jointly acquired the property for $89 million last year after Fannie Mae decided to consolidate its offices downtown.

The Historic Preservation Review Board concluded that the property’s main building, constructed between 1956 and 1958 as the headquarters of the Equitable Life Insurance Co. of Washington, D.C., is historically significant. At the time the corporation was among the oldest of its kind in Washington, and it also demonstrated the growth and stability of the insurance industry, particularly through the Great Depression, according to the landmark application.

Plans call for retaining the existing Fannie Mae building and developing the area behind it. (rendering courtesy of Roadside Development)

The application also points to the campus’s architecture, stating that  the original building and its wings were designed by prominent architect Leon Chatelain Jr. in the colonial revival style, influenced by the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Va.

Fannie Mae has five distinct parts that were constructed in three waves: A main building with two connectors, built in 1956; two side wings built in 1963; and a rear addition connected to both the central block and the side wings by hyphens, completed in 1978.

The portion of the property that was proposed for landmarking is bounded on the south by McLean Gardens; the east on Wisconsin Avenue NW; the north along a line about 40 feet above the northern edge of the 1962 wing; and on the west along a line approximately 120 feet beyond the existing rear wall of the original building.

Because the building’s interior sustained fire damage in 1968, applicants said it did not contain historic value and requested that only the property’s exterior be landmarked. The 1978 rear addition would also be demolished to accommodate new development.

The landmarked properties are adorned with brick cladding, a hipped slate roof, dormer windows and decorative wood elements. From Wisconsin Avenue, the property appears as it did at the time of construction. Developers said they intend to restore these landmarked buildings, retaining much of the existing structure.

“You’re doing a lot that’s very wholesome, and delightful if you will,” preservation board member Joseph Taylor said at last week’s hearing. “Today I’m a friendly critic. But I like what you’re doing.”

While the board expressed some concerns about the scale of the proposed new development and boundaries of the landmark designation, members ultimately approved the plans.

“I think they’ve been patient; I think they’ve been proactive with the community,” board member Andrew Aurbach said of the developers at the hearing, adding that the lack of public testimony suggested they’d “done their job sufficiently.”

The landmark application also received support from the Historic Preservation Office and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park).

“There are a lot of things that the neighborhood really likes about the concept and the design,” ANC 3C member Angela Bradbery said at the hearing. However, Bradbery noted that some concerns do exist about noise and intensity of truck traffic, as well as the scale of parts of the project. Bradbery said she is confident that developers and the community can find solutions to these issues together, adding that she hopes Lake will continue to include ANC 3C in project plans.

The development is set to break ground in 2019, Lake said in an October interview, with some buildings opening during 2021. He anticipates full completion in 2022.

Roadside is posting updates about its progress and accepting feedback at