Smithsonian Seeks Partner To Save Mall Landmark

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Smithsonian Institution has accelerated its search for a public or private partner to redevelop its landmark Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed to the public for three years since pieces of the roof began collapsing.

The museum "does not have funding now or in the foreseeable future to rehabilitate" the 126-year-old building, the Smithsonian's facilities director, William W. Brubaker, said in a briefing paper sent to Congress.

The alternative is to find a partner to "redevelop and operate the building under a long-term lease, and thereby return this important building to productive use," according to the document.

The ornate brick exhibition hall is the second-oldest building on the Mall, after the Smithsonian Castle. Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared it an endangered historic place and called it "an empty relic."

Smithsonian officials pledged that any partnership would "be consistent with the mission of the Institution." That means, according to one person in the congressional briefing, "no hotel, no bed-and-breakfast, no Gap, but something compatible with the rest of the Smithsonian."

The briefing paper explains that the Smithsonian is interested in museum, theater or exhibition uses "assuming that use does not duplicate the function or focus of other museums on the Mall." It would consider a combination of stores, commercial offices, and exhibition and conference space. Officials said uses such as "nightclubs, or similar commercial entertainment venues, residences, hotels, religious activities, or partisan political activities will not be considered."

"One of the Smithsonian's principal goals is to preserve, propagate and disseminate traditional American cultural elements. Accordingly, any proposed use that furthers this objective will be of significant interest to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian welcomes concepts that combine typical private sector redevelopment goals with educational, scientific, cultural, technological or other like-minded elements," according to the document.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, urged the senior executives of the Smithsonian last month to think broadly about financial resources for repairs.

She said yesterday that the plan for the Arts and Industries Building was promising. "We cannot afford to close our eyes and ignore its deteriorated condition any longer. Action is needed now, and I welcome the board's exploration of a possible partnership that can complement the Smithsonian and save the building," she said.

The landmark is a red-brick structure by architect Adolf Cluss built between 1879 and 1881. It is the oldest of the Smithsonian's museums and its 17 halls have been used to show off inventions, paintings and historic artifacts, including the Star-Spangled Banner until the 1960s. It is on the south side of the Mall, between the Castle and the Hirshhorn Museum.

Discussions about the building are in an exploratory stage. The first step is a request for qualifications (RFQ), essentially a call to see who might be interested. The next phase would be a request for proposal (RFP), an invitation for groups serious about the undertaking to submit detailed plans and a financial prospectus.

After a proposal is accepted, it would probably take a year for work to get started.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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