Built Environment Analysis
The Wonder Bread Factory
The once historical Wonder Bread Factory presents itself to many people today as nothing more than an office building. However, this innate tendency to overlook the objects, places, and environments around us can lead to an ignorance that many fail to realize exists. While most people assume areas or buildings have always presented themselves the way they are today, my research argues how the current may not always accurately represent the past and that one’s ignorance can have a negative effect on their view of an architectural sight or area. The commonality our society tends to have of ignoring the buildings around us and looking past the meaning they may present can often inhibit our knowledge. In general, we all tend to be too focused on our lives, to pay attention to the environment around around us. However with a broader perception, it is easy to see why every building or environment around us provides importance and often represents a conscious decision by a constructor, developer, or owner.
Though this broad generalization about human convention can be applied to any area, it is easily portrayed at the corner of 7th Street NW and S Street, where it can be easy to get distracted by the commotion and not pay attention to the significance of the office building in front of you. This office building was once the historic Wonder Bread Factory. Today, the “Wonder Bread” sign still stands untouched at the top of the current office building, however it easily gets blended into the background due to the newer signs placed underneath it. Currently, the signs that present themselves closer to the human eye say “ISL” and “WeWork,” the the two companies that occupy the space now. Due to the presence of these signs, The “Wonder Bread” sign often goes unnoticed, even by those workers who occupy the office building today. After taking a tour of the inside of the building and speaking with one of the workers, Sarah, she said she “had no idea” that the building even used to exist as the WonderBread Factory, and never questioned the sign existing directly above her on the exterior of the building. This exact neglect is what places an even higher importance on why we must know the areas that present themselves surrounding us. The seemingly unchanged exterior of the building juxtaposes the mainly reconstructed interior of the factory.
While many people will pass by the Wonder Bread Factory without paying attention to any aspects of the building, the exterior design alone can present critical details about the past. The historic “Cross” patterns at the corners of the building, the ancient red brick design, and the “Wonder Bread” sign gives an accurate description on the beginnings of this building. A man by the name of Peter M. Dorsch opened the factory in 1913. The goal of the bakery and the primary reason the cross patterns were designed was to establish a sense of trust between the factory and its customers. At the time the factory was fully functioning, Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle had just been published emphasizing the importance of food safety and cleanliness. The factory took it as one of their main goals to ensure the public that they were providing safe, clean, healthy bread products.
The cross patterns, red brick building, and signs all stayed present even through abandonment and renovations because of the artifact that the factory presented itself to be. Today, the Bakery still stands as one “of the most architecturally notable industrial/commercial buildings in the city and one of only a few surviving bakery buildings”(Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery) in the nation adding to reasons why it was important to keep the notable features alive throughout renovations. Just three notable features about the factory’s exterior can present an entire background of information that many may have not ever known.
Immediate distractions present themselves at the intersection of 7th Street NW and S Street which explains why many people may not pay attention to the meaning behind the factory and its designs. Along with the distractions, the seemingly innovative, active, urban area that exists today makes it almost impossible to even question a prior history that could have presented itself in the same area.
Furthermore, there are unique characteristics about the area as well as the building that bring questions about the past.
At a first glance around the area, The Wonder Bread Factory appears to parallel every other building around it. However, if you look directly across from the factory, there is a noticeable juxtaposition between the new modern art gallery, the Wonder Bread office building, and the broken down, poor quality housing that exists right next to it. Through delving into research, those houses once used to belong to the largest crack dealer on S Street who dealt the crack to the majority of the dealers. His name was Baldie, and his house currently still exists and does not appear to have had many renovations done to it. However there is a sense of juxtaposition created from the Wonder Bread Factory office building to the deteriorated homes right across the street. Once again, none of this information would have been gained from many people who pass by the area due to that sense of ignorance that haunts our minds and closes our depth of perception when we pass through different areas. This housing presence also brings about some questions:If a huge, successful office building can exist in this area, how does that explain the low level housing and suspicious alleyways on either side of the building? What used to exist here before? How was this building created? Why here? The story told behind the environment around the factory adds to the importance the building presents today. Much like the factory, the Shaw neighborhood surrounding it did not always present itself the way it does today and presents a story to the people inside and around it. The Wonder Bread Factory is placed at the heart of Shaw and people around it experienced every cultural change that happened in the area. At the time the factory first opened, Shaw was seen as the “center of African American intellectual and cultural life” (Shaw, Washington, D.C) with middle working class individuals living around the area. Not many exciting events took place, and to the families that lived around the Factory, S Street presented itself as just another living, working area. The bakery continued functioning and expanding becoming known as the city’s largest bread processing plant (Scribd) until 1988 when the Continental Baking Company moved to a larger facility in Philadelphia and the factory was left abandoned. Once this occurred, the factory as well as the Shaw community on S Street quickly and drastically changed. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Shaw became the main proprietor for riots, destruction, crime, and drug use.
The once beloved bakery became a primary crack zone and Washington, D.C became the drug capital of the nation in the 1980’s. The area surrounding the Factory became extremely degraded with “six to 10 drug dealers, slingers, just loitering in front of the building”(Addiction Battled Ambition) having no concern for the people around them. This problem perpetuated and took over the Shaw neighborhood for many years. However, if someone were to look at S Street and the Shaw neighborhood today, it is now one of the “hippest up-and-coming neighborhoods” (Shaw) with tons of places to eat, shop, and indulge for not only tourists but also those that live there.
Furthermore, if Shaw has been completely renovated, how did the factory become the office building it is today? Finally, in 1997, a construction company called Douglas Development bought the abandoned Bakery and began brainstorming ideas for what they were gonna do with the artifact. Initial plans for a hotel were later dismissed and the company agreed on creating the space as an office area that could be rented. However, the reconstruction process wasn’t easy and a lot of thought went into what was going to be preserved from the old factory.
When renovations first began, almost every aspect of the interior had to be redone due to the extreme degradation inside the building from the crack epidemic. All of “the windows had to be custom-built on-site” (Spinelli) and they were built as “floor-to-ceiling windows” (Spinelli) that could be seen from the outside so that it brought back a light to the factory. While indoor renovations altered the entire environment existing in the building, the exterior sections of the building remained remotely the same as they once were. According to the developers, while it is much more expensive to work with the old sections of the building that existed rather than demolishing the building and starting over, “it’s so far superior when you’re restoring what was originally there that it’s well worth it”(Wilson). With further research into The Douglas Development Corporation’s website, it is easy to understand the company’s motives and why they spent millions of dollars to restore what was left of the once beloved Wonder Bread Factory. On their “about” page, the company explains that their goal is to be “a leader in redevelopment of historical properties,” (iStrategyLabs) so preserving the historic design of the Wonder Bread Factory exterior was extremely important.
Along with the Company’s goal to keep the exterior as similar to the original factory as they could, other factors like the design of their website also target the argument I am making about the effects ignorance plays in our learning culture. Without researching all of this information, it would be practically impossible to even picture that any of these thoughts went into the building
let alone the website I am about to explain. The Douglas Development Corporation’s website shows that many conscious decisions were made by developers to appeal to customers, which many people would not have realized existed had they not paid attention to it. On their website there is an immense usage of whitespace that can be crucial in the customer experience. Often, improper usage of space on a digital site can make the viewer feel overwhelmed and confused by the site, leading them to exit out of the page. White space actually creates “harmony, balance. . . and can also be used to lead a reader from one element to another,” (Lana) creating a better interaction between the website and the viewer. Every decision that the Douglas Development Corporation made to renovate the building and construct their website has to do with a conscious decision that many people would not notice.
Although many people are oblivious to the places and areas around us and the meanings they may provide to us, the question becomes, why does all of that matter anyways? They say “Ignorance is Bliss” but to what extent does all of this play on how we live and experience the world around us? Through the research I conducted on the Wonder Bread Factory, the exterior, the interior, and the conscious decisions the development company made even on their own website, you can see how ignorance can play a role in our knowledge. Though some of the things we learn aren’t necessarily “important” in the long run, there has to be a balance in which “Ignorance is bliss on the one hand; curiosity and the thirst for knowledge on the other” (Is Ignorance Bliss?) to allow for a wider perception and understanding of human tendencies. We are all so focused on moving from place to place that “the simplest acts are often missed because we are simply too busy to pay attention to anything going around us” (Paying Attention) which only perpetuates the argument I make in my research.
“Paying Attention to Your Surroundings.” Secret Entourage, 8 Oct. 2014,
“Is Ignorance Bliss?” Psychology Today,. Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.
“Shaw.” Washington.org, 14 Apr. 2016.
“Shaw, Washington, D.C.” Wikipedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Wikipedia.
“Addiction Battled Ambition For Reporter Caught In D.C.’s Crack Epidemic.” NPR.org, Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.
“Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery (Also Known as the Wonder Bread Building or Wonder Bread Factory), 641 S Street, NW (in the Shaw Neighborhood of Washington, DC, District of Columbia)–Applcation for Listing/designation on the National Register of Historic Places.” Scribd,
Spinelli, Lisa. April 30. “Wonder Bread Factory Renovations Almost Complete.” Issue Media Group,
iStrategyLabs. Douglas Development | Find Office, Retail and Mixed-Use Space in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area. Accessed 8 Dec. 2016.
Lana, Michelle. “Why Whitespace Is so Important in Web Design.” Segue Technologies, 10 Sept. 2015.