In the abandoned mausoleum, with its overwhelming smell of formaldehyde, Arlington County preservation workers could just see the grimy outlines of several large stained-glass windows that had been boarded up for decades, bolts piercing the glass.
After they ripped the plywood down and wiped the dirt away, the workers made a startling discovery: One of the windows was signed "Louis C. Tiffany N.Y."
"In Concert" by Ann Chan Bandour is among the first pieces displayed at the renovated Arlington Arts Center.
County officials believe that the windows were made at the New York studio of the famed stained-glass artisan Louis Comfort Tiffany.
"When we found out was a real signature line, it took your breath away," said Michael Leventhal, Arlington's historic preservation coordinator. "You say to yourself, 'God, these are Tiffany windows.' "
Three of these "lost" Tiffany windows -- as the county has dubbed them -- have been restored and have taken center stage in the $5.5 million Arlington Arts Center, which reopened last month after a protracted three-year renovation.
More than 700 people, more than twice the number expected, attended the opening last month of the gallery's inaugural exhibit, "State of the Art: a Mid-Atlantic Overview," which features works by 69 artists from the region. The party was so packed that the wine ran out, said Denise K. Seider, the center's executive director.
"The response has been tremendous," Seider said. "I think in part because the building has been under renovation for so long, they come in and say, 'Oh, my God, I kept driving by and couldn't wait until you opened.'
"This has been a flagship institution in this community for a long time and people missed it."
The Arts Center -- on Wilson Boulevard, not far from the Virginia Square-GMU Metro station -- was founded in 1976 by a group of artists seeking studio space.
Over the years, they added exhibitions and art classes, but working out of the early 1900s-era Maury School building took its toll. The roof leaked, the walls were crumbling and the basement routinely flooded.
"The quality of the arts and programming had changed over the years, but the building had not. It was deteriorating," said Anne Hancock, an artist who sits on the center's board of directors.
The Arts Center raised $500,000 toward a new building, and the county authorized a $3 million renovation in 2002. The design demands of the aging building pushed construction costs much higher than expected and delayed completion until last month, said Ed Foley, the architect. The renovation had been expected to take less than a year.
The building has been expanded to 17,532 square feet, with generous new gallery spaces, a conference room, administrative offices, two classrooms, experimental studios for avant-garde showings and studios for 14 artists. Textile artists, painters and other artisans pay about $300 a month to rent space in the new upstairs studio wing, which has a full bathroom and kitchen.
On the main floor, the three stained-glass windows catch the southern light in a gallery that will be rented out for weddings and receptions.