Carnegie Building could become D.C. visitors center

D.C. officials have long strived to coax more tourists off of the National Mall into the District’s neighborhoods, restaurants and shops, and that effort is about to take another twist with a plan to transform the historic Carnegie Library building into a visitors center.

The Washington Convention and Sports Authority, which oversees the city’s convention and tourism business, is negotiating an arrangement with the city and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., to open a visitors center across Mount Vernon Place NW from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The centerpiece of Mount Vernon Square, the Carnegie Building was one of thousands of libraries built nationwide with funds donated by steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It was completed in 1903 and served as the city’s central library until 1970.

Gregory O’Dell, chief executive of the authority, said the Carnegie Building is in the perfect location to draw convention traffic and other visitors. “We have a million visitors who come to the convention center a year, so it’s an ideal fit,” he said.

The Historical Society, which currently holds a 99-year, rent-free lease on the building from the city, would remain in the building and continue to operate a library and gallery on the second floor if a deal is reached. The visitors center would likely occupy the entire first floor.

“I think with the Historical Society’s presence there, it creates the right balance of co-locating and using that facility for the benefit of all,” O’Dell said.

If the Convention Authority can open a successful visitors center, it will mark an improvement over previous efforts. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce operated a city-funded visitors center in the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center, but it suffered from low street visibility and high security requirements, which were an obstacle to tourists. It was closed in 2009. The chamber now operates a small visitors center out of its offices at 506 Ninth St. NW, but no longer receives city funding.

The Carnegie Building is home to its own trail of failed projects. The Historical Society spent $20 million renovating the building into the City Museum, which opened to fanfare in 2003 but closed only a year and a half later.

The Federal City Council then sublet the building from the Historical Society for use as a music museum, but pulled out of the project in 2008. The Historical Society then sued the Federal City Council, claiming that the withdrawal had left the organization in dire financial straits. The Federal City Council considers the suit without merit.

“We really are very interested in housing the visitors center,” said Kenneth J. Brewer Sr., chairman of the Historical Society board and executive director of the H Street Community Development Corp.

In the deal, the Convention Authority would provide the city with $9 million for control of the lease, Brewer said, and make payments to the Historical Society — which could put the organization on more firm financial footing. Its suit with the Federal City Council is ongoing but Brewer said he is “hopeful for a settlement.”

Linda Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit that promotes local cultural institutions, said the Carnegie Building would be better positioned to attract crowds now that development projects nearby are underway, including a Marriott Marquis convention center hotel and the mixed-use CityCenter DC.

“We’re all very excited about the new CityCenter, and that they just broke ground, and you’re going to have a new convention hotel. Certainly there is lots of growth in the Shaw neighborhood, the Mount Vernon neighborhood . . . so I think that the density that is coming should prove to be a good thing for the visitors center,” she said.

There is also the possibility that the Carnegie Building could act as a hub for a citywide network of visitors centers. Harper operates one on U Street NW that she says is on pace to attract 20,000 people this year.

And Barbara Lang, the chamber’s president, said many tourists naturally seek the local chamber when they go on trips and that she would continue to welcome them to space at her office. “I’d go into my lobby and I’d have 10 little senior citizens in there with maps, so we didn’t feel we had any choice,” she said. “That’s what chambers of commerce do in most cities.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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