Buddha in an empty bar: 12-foot statue presents a challenge of how to get it out

The riddle is not who will buy the Buddha, but how they will get it out of the building.

The Buddha is 12 feet tall and made of fiberglass painted a bright shimmering gold. The glass doorway at the front entrance of the former Buddha Bar — which has been closed but basically untouched for 21 months — is big, but not Buddha-big.

“You could maybe get the head out and then twist and turn it, like you’re moving an L-shaped couch,” says Blake Johnson, site coordinator for Rasmus Auctions, which is handling the sale of almost everything in the joint: tables and chairs of dark cherry wood, porcelain plateware, glass stemware and the giant religious icon resting on a large pedestal in the back of the restaurant.

“God, that is just extraordinary,” says Brad Woodhouse, president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. He gazes up at the heavy-lidded Buddha, who is facing the noontime traffic on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Woodhouse and four coworkers are here to see the Buddha in person before the online auction starts ending, item by item, Friday afternoon.

“We’d have to cut it in half,” says one super PAC man.

“What about the interns?” says another. “This could be their first assignment.”

“Pick 10 interns and whoever can figure out how to get it out of here gets a job.”

“I mean, if you sliced it down the middle . . . .”

“You’d have to cut it at the waist . . . .”

American Bridge thought about doing an office pool to buy the statue. There were offers made, bets placed, calendar invites distributed for Buddha viewing. They’ve come to inspect and be bemused, to pay homage to this hunk of garish decor, but then how to get it out — and where to put it?

“I never thought I’d say this,” Woodhouse said, sighing for dramatic effect, “but I wish the Buddha was smaller.”

The Buddha’s origins and fate are uncertain Thursday afternoon, when it sits as a monument to thwarted ambition and cobwebbed extravagance. Buddha Bar, part of an international franchise, opened in 2010 as a kind of bar-club-lounge-restaurant, with DJs and saketinis and cartoonish dragon murals that could have been patterned on Ed Hardy T-shirts. Post food critic Tom Sietsema gave it a half-star review. Although it was heralded as a fancy-schmancy cornerstone of the rapidly developing Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, it closed after a year.

Some said it was the location, on a condo-heavy, pedestrian-unfriendly stretch of Massachusetts Avenue. Some said it was the lines to get in, or the prissy bottle-service mentality, or the mismanagement by out-of-town interests, or just the volume.

“It got loud,” says Mike Isabella, D.C. restaurant baron and “Top Chef” competitor, who’s standing at the foot of the Buddha with three associates. “It’s a shame. That’s a million-dollar kitchen.” He’s here to plunder the kitchen for restaurant projects in Ballston and Richmond. Maybe not the woks that are the size of baptismal fonts, but at least the pans and refrigerators.

“Is it heavy?” Isabella asks the site coordinator on his way out, nodding toward the Buddha.

It’s just fiberglass, Blake Johnson says. One person could push it.

But how to get it out. . .

“Let’s get lunch,” Isabella says, without giving the Buddha a second thought.

“Let’s roll,” says one of his associates.

Along the side wall, Jeremy Gifford and his business partner are inspecting a 5-by-7.5-foot mirror and concluding that it will take too much effort to pry it from the burgundy walls.

“It’s bougie chic for a neighborhood-bar guy like me,” says Gifford, who owns D.C. Reynolds in Petworth and is opening another bar on North Capitol Street. He looks up at the tasseled chandeliers, which are the size of helicopters. “It’s comical that they spent millions of dollars and failed almost immediately.”

And the Buddha?

“The Buddha will —” Gifford says, trailing off, caught in its golden gaze.

“Be in some drug dealer’s place eventually,” says the business partner.

“I say put it on the Key Bridge,” Gifford says.

“Welcome to D.C.”

“Where opu­lence is everything.”

It took $10 million to make Buddha Bar. The top bid for its 12-foot icon is $1,000, as of Thursday afternoon. Restaurateurs amble in and out here, inspecting snifters the size of fishbowls and stitched upholstery the color of oil slicks, salivating at the potential deals to furnish their new ventures. Buddha Bar may be dead, and that’s maybe for the best, but it will be reborn in pieces, elsewhere, somehow.

“It feels like being a vulture,” says Can Yurdagul, manager of Sushi Capitol, which is planning to open a second location. “It’s kind of sad. Someone else had to fail for us to do this. You never wish failure upon anyone, because who knows — maybe a year down the road, we’re in the same position.”

But hitting these auctions is “the only way you can survive in this business,” says Tegist Awalew, the owner-manager of Crème, which is reopening at 14th and Belmont streets NW at the end of April.

“You’ve gotta be a good shopper,” Awalew says. The kitchenware is at the top of her list.

Might she buy the Buddha too?

She looks up at him. It’s quite something, she admits, but how to get it out, and then where to put it?

“Maybe in the next life,” she says.

The answer to the riddle: On Friday afternoon, the winning bid ($1,526) was made by D.C. attorney and bar owner David Chung, who’s behind Mason Inn and Parkview Patio. He bought it as a housewarming gift for D.C. builder Bill Dean, chief executive of Dulles-based M.C. Dean. Last year Dean completed a $40-million-plus renovation of Terra Veritatis, the 2.5-acre Miami Beach estate formerly owned by S.S. Kresge, who founded the company that later became Kmart.

Chung and Dean visited the Monaco location of Buddha Bar together last summer, and took note of how patrons gawked at the Buddha statue there. Dean is a big supporter of the Dalai Lama, so “there was just a lot of positive energy” around his bid, Chung says wryly. Chung’s own design team will dismantle the Buddha and ship it in pieces to Terra Veritatis, where Dean “throws the biggest and best parties in Miami.

“I thought it would be a waste for the Buddha to go somewhere else,” Chung says. “It should be where it belongs — in Miami.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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