Corcoran Seals $6.2 Million Deal For Randall School

A men's homeless shelter vacated the Southwest Washington site two years ago to make way for the Corcoran.
A men's homeless shelter vacated the Southwest Washington site two years ago to make way for the Corcoran. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

After a long and contentious period, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has officially purchased the vacant Randall School from the District.

Gallery officials announced yesterday that they had signed the contract Tuesday night to give the city $6.2 million for the Southwest Washington property and had hired Monument Realty to oversee the project, in which the Corcoran will occupy part of the building and the rest will be converted to apartments.

"This is absolutely in line with where we want to go," said Paul Greenhalgh, the director of the city's oldest private museum and art college.

The Corcoran had been interested for several years in the rambling property at Half and I streets SW. But gaining the site wasn't easy. A holdover from the early 20th century, the building was last used as a school in 1978. The city installed a men's shelter in part of the building, and artists leased other parts for studios. When the Corcoran's plans were announced two years ago, advocates for the homeless protested, as did the artists, who complained about the lack of affordable studio space in Washington.

In the interim the Corcoran ran into serious financial troubles, with budget deficits and a stalled capital campaign that led to the cancellation of plans for a much-ballyhooed addition next to the Corcoran's main building on 17th Street NW that was being designed by the famed architect Frank Gehry. The project was canceled in 2005, and director David Levy resigned after 14 years in the post.

In an effort to get back on its feet, the Corcoran is developing a strategic plan, and one of its key elements is the expansion of the college. The Randall site will give the Corcoran 80,000 square feet for studio, exhibition and classroom space.

"Part of our strategic plan is to grow the student base and make the college more competitive," said Greenhalgh. In the next five years, he said the college plans to double enrollment from the current 350 undergraduates and 150 graduate students. The school also has about 2,500 students in its continuing education programs.

The space is needed because of the large art forms many of today's students favor. "The art school needs a proper facility, and this allows us to make the art forms for the future. We need space for large-scale metals, large-scale fabrications and plastics," said Greenhalgh.

The Corcoran will continue to use its school facilities on 17th Street and at the Fillmore School in upper Georgetown. "There will be a powerful student presence in all places. The divide will be between the clean arts and dirty arts," Greenhalgh said, referring to drawing, etching and computer graphics as opposed to media that require such industrial facilities as ovens and furnaces.

As part of the purchase contract, the Corcoran is offering some of the space at Randall to the artists who used to lease space there when it was called the Millennium Arts Center. "If they are interested in coming back, we are offering them space," said Rebecca M. Gentry, the gallery's vice president of institutional advancement.

Once the municipal reviews are completed, Greenhalgh said, the Corcoran will sell the property for $8.2 million to Monument, which will manage the building. The profit, said Gentry, will go to the city's public-school modernization fund. Twenty percent of the residences are to be classified as affordable housing.

F. Russell Hines, Monument's executive vice president, said the company is interested in the project because of its uniqueness and because it has other investments in the neighborhood, including 2 million square feet north of the new baseball stadium. "We have never done anything exactly like this before," said Hines, "and it is complicated, given the historic stature of the building."

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