The Carnegie Library, in Mount Vernon Square, is one of the city’s most treasured buildings and yet one of its most difficult.
Built as the first home to the city’s public library 110 years ago, the
building has attracted a long line of big thinkers who attempted to take advantage of its architecture, history and location to create a civic treasure of one sort or another.
All have failed.
There was the City Museum, a $20 million effort by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. to persuade the many visitors to the Nation’s Capital to also take an interest in — and pay to learn about — the history of the city itself. Between 100,000 and 450,000 visitors were projected; fewer than 37,000 arrived. It closed in 2004, 16 months after opening.
An industry group, the Federal City Council, then attempted to create a music museum for the building. No dice.
That left the historical society, which leases the space from the city, with little way to pay for the building’s expensive upkeep.
Enter Greg O’Dell, chief executive of Events DC, manager of the convention center and the city’s de facto chief marketing officer. In April, we reported that O’Dell was negotiating a deal to take over the historical society’s lease and open a visitor’s center in the building. Now the deal is done. The historical society will continue to maintain collections in the building, but Events DC will manage it and assume the remaining 88 years on the lease. It will pay the historical society $125,000 a year, a major step in making that group financially viable.
O’Dell’s plan is to hook the old building into the Events DC marketing machine and funnel thousands of visitors to the building from his growing convention center business. There, they would find a hub of information about “all the events and attractions in the city” aimed at business travelers and tourists alike. Already, he has a request for proposals on the street for someone to design the new space.
“For us, I think you have a ready-made audience with a million visitors that come out of the convention center,” O’Dell said.
In that, O’Dell sounds like the previous victims of the Carnegie building. But O’Dell at least has a convention center hotel under construction and the benefit of CityCenter DC also being on the way. He envisions the visitor’s center as more than just an office with maps and statues, but an anchor to a network of sites around the city that will provide real-time information on what there is to do once the meetings are over.
Perhaps if everyone who walks into the convention center is made aware of what’s across the street, they will take a stroll over there. O’Dell says he will make sure they will at least know about it.
“When it boils down to it,” he said. “We are going to make sure that we market the visitor’s center.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz