This 1980s Baileys Crossroads office building has some curious features


As Robert Seldin showed Answer Man on the top floor of a vacant office block in Baileys Crossroads, a thought came to mind: what this place needs are henchmen.

Henchmen, henchwomen, henchmen, minions… Call them what you will, 5111 Leesburg Pike could use dozens of underlings in jumpsuits rushing in as the roof slides back and a buzzing voice counts down ominously.

“It’s an interesting artifact,” Seldin said of the curious space, the cavernous mechanical penthouse of a 1983 building whose original tenants included defense contractors. “It was built at the end of the Cold War.”

Seldin is the CEO of Highland Square Fund, the developers who are turning most of the office buildings on the so-called Skyline into living/working spaces. (More on that later.) As Seldin’s team inspected their newest acquisition, they realized there were some oddities in what’s called Building 5, a decidedly nine-story structure. beige. The concrete floor of the mechanical penthouse – where the HVAC system lives – is almost twice as thick as expected.

“It’s designed to hold super heavy objects,” Seldin said.

The ceiling is high too: 24 feet. And although most of the roof of the building is solid, there is a large corrugated iron panel on part of the penthouse.

“That part of the roof is very easy to remove,” Seldin said, suggesting that someone wanted to store things here that could be loaded with a crane.

These things would be heavy and, Seldin supposed, able to get out of the building on their own. All of this is why Seldin believes the 5111 Leesburg Pike was designed to accommodate surface-to-air missiles.

“It’s the only building in the complex that has this feature,” he said.

Not that he ever held missiles. Seldin thinks the original RFP included the specs just in case.

“The government always wants to give itself maximum flexibility,” he said. “It was a time when we focused on preparation.”

But were missiles ever really part of the plan? Robert Peck is not so sure. Peck was a senior General Services Administration official during the Clinton and Obama administrations and now works for the architectural firm Gensler.

“During the Cold War, there were all kinds of weird things going on,” Peck said. But, as a policy, “the government is trying to avoid investing huge sums of extra money in a building that doesn’t belong to them.”

And that applies to Building 5, which was developed and originally owned by the Charles E. Smith Companies. Buildings in the area that have missiles — like the White House — belong to the government.

Peck thinks the site wouldn’t really work for missiles anyway. It’s not that high. And you wouldn’t want to shoot something like a Stinger through a hole in the closed penthouse ceiling because of the huge rear explosion that would be produced.

At Answer Man’s request, Peck reached out to other GSA alumni. None had specific knowledge of a missile supply at Skyline.

Says Peck: “It’s possible that someone would want to mount some kind of telescope or maybe some kind of surveillance equipment, if they wanted to look at something. Or secret computers. This is the kind of thing that happens in some government buildings.

As fascinating as these quirky design features may be, what Seldin really wants to talk about is the future of Building 5 and the office building concept in general.

“At its core, an office building is a machine for temporarily storing people and permanently storing information for processing,” he said. “Historically, you had to go into the building to get the information you needed to do your job. Since 2007 – when the iPhone was introduced – most people can now carry the sum total of knowledge of human history in their pockets.

Building technology, Seldin says, has not kept up with information technology. “We have a pretty deep schism right now between what people want to do and where they’re allowed to do it,” he said. “And so what we’ve tried to do is eliminate that friction.”

This includes working with Fairfax County to re-zone buildings so people can live, work there and run businesses there. The wide, open floors of the compartmented farmhouse are divided into individual apartments. The units receive more electricity than traditional apartments, Seldin said. Emergency generators will maintain juice during an outage.

Similar work was done during the company’s first live development / work, Mission Lofts in the Church of the Falls.

As for that solid, high-ceilinged, maybe (but probably not) missile-ready floor space in the penthouse?

“We want to put a pool here,” Seldin said.

Hopefully the pool has at least some sharks with lasers.

Thanks to Zan McKelway for activating Answer Man on Skyline Building 5 and for Chris Barbuschak, archivist/librarian at the Fairfax Virginia Room, for research assistance. Send your DC Zone questions to [email protected]

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