By Frank Leone
The GW Deli is a well-known cultural landmark, but right next door is an unrecognized historic landmark – the John J. Earley Office and Studio (2131 G. St). Earley was a local artisan, artist, and architect whose innovative techniques brought color to concrete construction, changing the way architects used the material. His work beautified Washington from the 1910s to the 1940s and was appreciated in many other cities. Much of his work was created at the two floor modest office and studio on G St., which is still faced with his signature multicolored concrete.
The son of an Irish immigrant stone carver, Earley took over the family business in 1906, at age 24, following his father’s death. He initially focused on stucco and plaster installation, but then explored new ways of making and using concrete.
Concrete, an ancient building material, is a mixture of stone (aggregate), sand, water, and cement. Earley developed methods to combine aggregates of many colors to achieve visual effects similar to traditional mosaics. The aggregates he used included ceramics, porcelains, opaque enamel glasses, marble-plated with gold, and natural stones such as quartz, obsidian, and granite, resulting in over 200 colors. He also pioneered the use of exposed aggregate concrete (“architectural concrete”) offering color and texture, instead of a dull grey surface, and using pre-cast panels to facilitate construction, among other innovations.
Earley’s important creations in Washington include Meridian Hill Park, and mosaic installations for the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, the Franciscan Monastery, the Reptile House at the National Zoo (yes, that Stegosaurus), Dulles Airport, the Willard Hotel, and the Polychrome Houses in Silver Spring, Maryland. His work also included George Washington University’s doorway to Adams Hall (1923). While working on the Thomas Edison Memorial Tower, Earley suffered a stroke and died on November 25, 1945.
Earley designed and built the Office and Studio in 1907 and occupied it until 1936 (when he moved to Virginia, having failed to obtain permission to build a stone crushing plant on G Street.) The building’s main façade is clad in Earley’s trademark architectural concrete. A one-story addition added in 1911 connects the Office to the Studio, which is located at the rear of the property. Based on its association with Earley, the building was designated as a DC historic landmark in 2010 in conjunction with GW’s identification of the GWU/Old West End Historic District and separate landmarked buildings. GW bought the property in 1973 and uses it for the School of Business (the office bears the name of GW donor Charles R. Bendit) and the dance department. GW has done little to make the building’s historic importance known.
Sources: John J. Earley Office and Studio National Register Nomination Form (Feb. 2008); Robert F. Armbruster, John J. Earley’s Mosaic Concrete Art Gods, Saints, and Battle Maps, Ci (March 2019); Patricia A. Cunnif, The Contributions of John J. Earley to the Franciscan Monastery Washington DC, Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild, Minuteman Press, Laurel, MD, 2015; Foggy Bottom History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/.