National Trust Calls Arts & Industries An Endangered Site

Gulf Coast neighborhoods such as this one in New Orleans were included in the list of the most endangered historic sites in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Gulf Coast neighborhoods such as this one in New Orleans were included in the list of the most endangered historic sites in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Smithsonian Institution Via Reuters)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, the second oldest structure on the Mall and a national landmark, was named an endangered historic place yesterday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Designed by architect Adolf Cluss and built between 1879 and 1881, the building was the Smithsonian's first museum. The building has served many purposes. It was at one time the home of the Star-Spangled Banner. It also housed a popular children's theater. President James Garfield held his inaugural ball in the building.

But almost from the start, the red brick Victorian structure has been plagued by leaks. In recent years, Smithsonian officials placed canopies below the ceiling to catch falling debris. In 2004, it was closed to the public because of its deteriorating condition.

The endangered designation is a warning to the Smithsonian that the building needs to be saved, said Richard Moe, president of the trust.

"We are doing this because it is an enormously significant building. It is the best preserved example of 19th-century exhibition architecture in the country," he said. "What was once the crown jewel of the Smithsonian Institution has become an empty relic."

The building, a prominent structure on 3.25 acres just east of the famous Smithsonian Castle, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the work of Cluss, who is credited with creating 70 buildings in 19th-century Washington.

The Smithsonian is taking steps to "mothball" the building, a process where the temperatures are stabilized while the structure is empty. The Smithsonian is also moving the remaining employees out by the fall.

A renovation plan was commissioned five years ago by the Smithsonian, but the work was deferred in 2003 while the site was considered for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (A location near the Washington Monument was eventually selected for that project.)

Moe says more long delays would add to the deterioration. "We want to dramatize that. Deferred maintenance is a huge problem for universities, churches and cultural institutions," he said. "We want to bring attention to that need. We are not saying they are neglecting the building."

One study last year estimated that it would take $415 million to restore the building as a museum.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small said, "It's sad to say, but the Arts and Industries Building is only the tip of the iceberg when you take a good look at the Smithsonian's building and maintenance backlog. The institution needs $100 million more a year than it currently has in order to deal with the maintenance challenges over the next 10 years."

Acknowledging that public funds are tight, Moe says he has told Small that the National Trust for Historic Preservation would be willing to sponsor a conference to consider the range of solutions.

Moe pointed out that the Hotel Monaco was built in the old General Post Office, a 1840 building by Robert Mills through a private-public partnership. "I would not rule out private investment," Moe said. "I don't know if this should be a hotel, but it should find a use. It has to have some public access and has to be compatible with the Smithsonian mission."

The building was designed by Cluss and Paul Schulze, and Gen. Montgomery Meigs was the consulting engineer. When it opened it had 17 exhibition halls, all lit by natural light. The interior was altered over the years, and in the bicentennial year of 1976, the rotunda and the adjoining halls were restored.

The roof presented a problem almost from the start. The snowstorm of 1899 caused buckling of the iron girders. The roof was replaced in 1975-1977. By 1981, a report said, new leaks were obvious.

The delay in repairs, said a 2001 Smithsonian assessment, "poses risk to both the central computer system for the entire Smithsonian and the irreplaceable records of the Smithsonian Archives." Last year, a Government Accountability Office report said that water had damaged 200 books at the archives.

During the blizzard of 2003, after 16 inches of snow, plaster fell from one area of the ceiling and that part of the building was closed. Later that year, the Smithsonian board of regents said that funds should be secured to close the building and relocate the staff.

At the time about 500,000 visitors a year came to the building.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation also placed on its list: the historic communities and landmarks of the Mississippi Coast and New Orleans; the World Trade Center Vesey Street staircase; a suburban village from the early 20th century at Kenilworth, Ill.; the Blair Mountain Battlefield, Logan County, W.Va.; the Doo Wop Motels in Wildwood, N.J.; the Fort Snelling Upper Post, Hennepin County, Minn.; Kootenai Lodge, Bigfork, Mont.; Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel, Calif.; and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, Cincinnati.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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