The Architecture of Camouflage

What lurks behind these empty walls? (Image By: heydayjoe)

Hey, 400 block of 8th Street NW! Powell Elementary’s Drama Club called — they want their stage sets back! (Image By: heydayjoe)

If you’re a sharp-eyed passerby, or simply sighted, you may have noticed these lackluster building facades along 8th Street NW between D & E. What are they hiding?

Perhaps it’s the “Danger – High Voltage” signs hanging on the concrete doorways that give it away. Or maybe it’s the white trucks with the blue and green logo driving in and out of the buildings.

Despite some telltale signs of what hides behind these walls, we have to give props to these props. Though the design of these false fronts is far from grandiose, it does blend into the neighborhood better than, say, a concrete bunker surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, like one you might find at…

Pepco substation.

Yes, these phony facades hide a power substation of the Potomac Electric Power Company, aka Pepco, a large utility that serves Washington, DC, and the surrounding area. But why here, on a piece of prime real estate in trendy Penn Quarter? The answer: location. Substations have to be close to the neighborhoods they serve, and as the condo towers continue to rise, this substation in disguise is dishing out more power every day.

Thank you for your interest but due to security concerns we do not disseminate the type of information you have requested about our electric system. I apologize for not being able to accommodate your request.

Heyday contacted Pepco to get the scoop on this substation and others. When were the fake facades on 8th Street created? How much is the real estate they’re located on worth? How many substations are there in DC proper? The answers to these questions? We’ll never know, because Pepco wants to keep its utility under the radar. The quote to the right is the official response from Bob Hainey, Pepco’s media relations manager.

For the record, Heyday DC poses no nefarious threat; we are not that tricksy and our addiction to electricity leads us to respect Pepco’s right to substation secrecy. So Pepco, you keep hiding and we’ll keep seeking.

Pepco – giving you energy and light, while hiding in plain sight…

[UPDATE: The good people at the Washington DC History Network (@H_DC_DCHistory) pointed us to a 1997 Washington Post story with more information about the mysterious facades. The building fronts on this section of 8th Street NW are historical fragments from buildings that once stood along Pennsylvania Avenue. Starting with the building on the left (south) in the above photo, the facades are from Bassin’s, Washington’s first sidewalk cafe, originally located at 14th and Pennsylvania; Kann’s, once DC’s second largest department store, in the 700 block of Market Space (a three-bay cast-iron segment); 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., originally constructed in the 1890s and torn down in the 1960s to make way for the first modern office building on the west end of Pennsylvania Ave.; 405 7th Street NW; and 819 and 817 Market Space NW. It sure would be nice to have a commemorative plaque here that describes the origin of these building facades…]