Smithsonian Seeks Partner To Save Mall Landmark
Arts & Industries Would Be Leased to Developer For Compatible Use

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.

The Smithsonian has hired the Staubach Co., a real estate development firm based in Texas, to help navigate this process. Its chairman is Roger Staubach, the legendary former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.

The bare-bones cost for replacing the building's roof and windows, adding more security and fire protection and modernizing the heating and cooling systems is estimated at roughly $55 million, according to the document.

A 2005 study estimated it would cost $416 million to fully renovate the building for use as a museum.

Construction costs can change dramatically during a project. The Patent Office Building, site of two Smithsonian museums, was closed for its overhaul for six years. The cost of the project jumped from $60 million to $250 million.

One possible use is for the National Children's Museum, which lost its home near Union Station and hasn't found a new site. Its board is in negotiations with the developers for space at L'Enfant Plaza. "That has been our priority all along," said Kathy Southern, the museum's president. Still, she is curious about the Smithsonian location but feels the price tag is way beyond her $130 million campaign goal. "Right now we just don't know enough," Southern said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a Smithsonian regent and sponsor of legislation to form a National Latino Museum, reminded his fellow regents in January that his project would need a home, according to minutes of the meeting. The plan for a Latino museum passed the House last year. It has not been approved by the Senate.

Conditions at Arts and Industries have worried preservationists and Smithsonian officials for years. The roof had deteriorated to such a point that a canopy was installed beneath it to catch falling debris. Then, after a severe snowstorm in 2003 collapsed two other historic Washington structures, the Board of Regents decided the building had to be closed for safety reasons.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said he was encouraged by the new preliminary moves.

"It is sitting on the Mall crumbling, and there may well be a private solution. I would be open to that," he said. But he warned that selecting a use should be a public process. "We and others would appreciate the opportunity to talk with them and create a transparent process."

The conditions of the landmark are emblematic of the crisis at the Smithsonian over its aging buildings and renovation needs. A study by the Government Accountability Office estimated the Smithsonian needed $2.5 billion to fix all its facilities.

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