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Making a Gallery Space Its Own Work of Art

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page C05

Artist-turned-developer Giorgio Furioso may have given up his paintbrushes and canvases years ago for blueprints, contracts and other tools of the real estate trade. But he still makes art a priority in his everyday business.

Furioso has made a name for himself developing studio space for artists and upscale residential buildings with meticulously designed artistic flourishes.

Giorgio Furioso has made 1515 14th St. NW into a home for several of the city's best art galleries. (Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

His latest project, however, takes his passion to its highest level yet. Furioso will soon unveil a building in the bustling Logan Circle area of 14th Street NW that will house several of the city's best art galleries under one roof.

Furioso, 55, says it's his dream to help create a SoHo- or Chelsea-style commercial art hub in Washington.

On Sept. 18, G Fine Art will be the first to open its doors in the complex at 1515 14th St. NW. Hemphill Fine Arts plans to follow in October, then Adamson Gallery by year's end. Independent curator Andrea Pollan will launch a venture there next month called Curator's Office, where she'll combine consulting services with an exhibition program.

The three-story building, adjacent to the expanded Studio Theatre complex, opened in the 1920s as an automotive showroom. Many locals know it best as the Sign of the Lamb building -- its former signage recalling its days as the Lamb Sign & Stencil Co., one of several uses in its long life.

During a tour of the building last weekend, Furioso's demeanor was equal parts easy assurance and eager wonder at the artistic details he's included. Here's the new elevator that can accommodate an 8-by-8-foot painting, here's a stairwell that will be lit by a single floor-to-roof pole wrapped in fluorescent tubing. He rushes around, barely able to contain his glee.

Furioso's company bought the building and two adjacent parcels for $3.8 million, and he says he will invest another $2.5 million in renovations for the arts structure. He initially hoped to recruit galleries only, but his vision is in flux since Conner Contemporary Art abandoned plans to relocate there from Dupont Circle. He's now considering proposals from other gallerists and restaurateurs for the ground-floor space once earmarked for Conner. (Hemphill, moving from Georgetown, will occupy the third floor, while G Fine Art and Adamson Gallery, both moving from downtown locations, will share the second floor with Curator's Office.)

Furioso estimates he's been approached by more than 20 arts-related businesses hoping to occupy space in the building, and more than a hundred retailers vying for the prime street-level space. Furioso says the building could command a market rate of $40 per square foot, but he's negotiated discounts for his gallery tenants.

"It's difficult when people are ready to pay the price and you turn them down," he says.

But Furioso, who plans to build an abstract-style condominium on the vacant lot next door, is being highly selective to support his vision for a thriving blue-chip gallery haven. Even a restaurant, he says, would have to agree to a host of art-related conditions -- a visually spare design to complement his aesthetic standard for the space, and a commitment to exhibit art from the galleries upstairs.

"It's about being successful as an arts building," says Furioso, "more than just individual businesses being successful."

The Italian-born Furioso settled in Washington in the 1980s, teaching college art and painting full time. He found himself drawn to real estate in response to a dearth of studio space for working artists. Now, as a full-time developer -- credit the birth of his two children, now teenagers, for the career shift -- he knows his art-friendly philosophy puts him at odds with the development mainstream.

"If a developer rents space to a law firm," he says, "does he care if the firm does public work?"

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