Marketing company Building 2020 wanted to build a sleek office building and wanted the best views from the waterfront. While thinking about where to put the office, on the Southwest waterfront, the company pulled a big construction brochure off its shelf, flipped it upside down and scrawled the name “built-in box” on top.
The box, which looks like something out of science fiction, is still there more than four years later, apparently unadorned. It sits nearby a triangular shaped wall of three, a bit like the “Iron Throne” from “Game of Thrones,” dully waiting for its only owner. “Cause of unsightly construction blight on a hilly ‘Western waterfront’ site,” read the caption on the brochure, which serves as a research tool used by Building 2020 to promote its design.
People in the area call it the “dead man box.” John Costa, an architectural historian at Northern Virginia Community College, likens it to a “soul-dead building.” “That’s the only thing that really explains it,” he said.
Underneath the murky gray exterior are three mezzanines connected by an atrium. Builders attached a wide dumbwaiter to a pivot point to open the top part of the building into a social space that looks like a movie theater, Costa said. But the rear mezzanine remains mostly unfinished. The wall of the triangular-shaped wall of three is mostly untouched.
And the box, which serves as a message board, has sat there for at least two years.
It’s not even legal to plant plants in an abandoned building. The piece is on Howard Beach Farm, a 14-acre site in Southwest that was once the place where Washington sculptor Perry Wood used to set up about 25,000 statues, built from a single piece of American tinny, he once said.
As the farm changed hands over the years, different people put up buildings, making it a messy situation. In 2013, it was owned by the Southwestern Market grocery chain. Six years later, it’s owned by Waterfront DC.
Downtown, where Building 2020 built its office, there are many high-rise buildings in the works, including a new HQ for Amazon. In Southwest, there are few buildings, with the exception of the soon-to-be-opened Eyre Capitol, a modernist, glass office tower across the street from Building 2020.
The dead man box seemed to be on Waterfront DC’s radar at first. “We do happen to own the land that they’re on,” Waterfront DC senior partner Chris Papazian said in a 2017 interview.
But then, after three months of trying to get the shipping box removed, Waterfront DC cleared it of debris and shored it up so that it would stay up longer. In May, Papazian said that Building 2020 would help the city build a landscaped area around the box, planting shrubs to make it more inviting.
In July, Building 2020 also promised to start grading the perimeter of the parcel, which hadn’t been touched in years.
Now, building representatives will return to Howard Beach Farm for an inspector from the city’s Department of Tabling and Concrete Removal to determine whether the box can remain until it’s built. But that might be difficult.
It would take about 15 million to 20 million dollars to remove the box and clean up the site, said Christina Coley, a senior project manager at Waterfront DC. Even if they could raise the money, that’s just one part of the bigger picture.
Costa said he thinks the firm will simply demolish the box if it can’t raise the funds for a landscaped area, which would be cheaper.
Calls and emails to Building 2020 were not returned. Papazian said the firm is responsible for letting Waterfront DC know when the construction wrap up. But he’s not holding his breath.
“I really do think that’s the last standing reminder of the times the city was ripe for a self-imposed shadow of the city of the future,” Costa said.