The part of Washington where Mera and Donald Rubell intend to put their second contemporary art museum and a new residential-retail complex was a dangerous, ramshackle area where 1960s urban renewal had left a strange jumble of industrial buildings, public housing projects and apartments cut off from the rest of the city by an elevated highway.
The Rubells hit Washington nine years ago. They bought a 1962 motor hotel by the highway, a seedy Best Western where hookers and druggies claimed the sidewalks and the crowd inside wasn’t much more savory.
Today, the Capitol Skyline Hotel boasts a lobby full of contemporary art and furniture, even a chair you’re not allowed to sit on (it’s a Frank Gehry!). The pool has become a gathering spot for the District’s young arts, music and social crowds. And if the Rubells’ next dream comes true — and their dreams usually do — the abandoned public school across the street will soon be transformed by an arts and commercial development that will do for Southwest Washington what the family’s arrival did for Miami’s Wynwood.
Southwest, despite the remade Arena Stage, the new ballpark and thousands of new apartments north of the stadium, remains very much a work in progress, which is what brings Mera Rubell to town a couple of times a month. (Lately, she’s been here even more than usual: Last week, she hosted an art fair at the Skyline that filled four floors with paintings, sculpture and video from around the world. And a show drawn entirely from the Rubell family collection, “30 Americans,” opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art this weekend and runs through February.)
Decked out in Panama hat, black cape, black capris and black booties, Mera walks through the Skyline’s lobby as if she owned the place. (She and Donald bought it for $7.2 million in 2002; today, the District assesses it at $40.3 million.)
She asks guests in the check-in queue where they’re from, then tells them about the art she donated to their local museum. At the pool, she sees a party being set up for a black fraternity group and calls her manager: “I don’t like when we rent out to any group that’s all one thing,” she warns. “I forbid white parties, I forbid black parties at the pool. It’s got to be everyone together. I want people to see that this is where you come to be with all kinds of people.”
Walk along some of Southwest’s scruffiest streets with Rubell, and she sees beauty and possibility in the same apartment buildings that many D.C. residents dismiss as barren. Here’s one designed by Morris Lapidus, the Miami architect most famous for his beach-kitsch Fontainebleau Hotel. Turns out he also drew the Skyline. And here’s a building with swooping aluminum roofs and doors: “Amazing,” Mera says. “If people only knew what was here. . . .”