The Captain in the Harbor

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Milt Peterson is sitting in his offices looking down with childlike glee on National Harbor, a new city he is building on the Potomac.

"You know what's the mainstay of this whole project?" he asks. "I'll tell you. It's the art."

When Peterson employs the term, it wraps around a lot of things -- standing stones and white shell paths, forests on the skyline, enormous public sculptures, mosaics on external walls, huge maps underfoot, giant eagles overhead.

He says: "You don't go to Rome to see Italians! You don't go to Venice to ride in a boat! You go for the art. What's art supposed to do for us? I'll tell you. Art identifies the place. More than any other aspect, it puts us on the map.

"Every developer thinks he has pretty buildings, but the public doesn't care if they're pretty or not. Every developer has architecture, doors, windows, elevators, but who else has art?

"At National Harbor art wasn't an afterthought. We had art before we had buildings.

"Art works, let me tell you. When we opened sales for our first building -- 254 condominiums -- we sold out in 37 days. Then we made another 180 units available in our second building, and we've got four left. The buyers who paid $650,000 for a two-bedroom -- what'd they see? They didn't see the buildings; the buildings weren't built yet. They saw the big vision. They saw the art.

"I was biznified when I started this project. Then I became artified. You've got to be a zealot. A zealot! You've got to lift the spirit, and appeal to the emotions. You've got to make them soar."

Then Peterson jumps up from his chair and says, "Let's go see some art."

Today he is accompanied by artist Albert Paley, the thoughtful, self-contained ponytailed sculptor from whom he has commissioned the tall sculpture that will greet visitors arriving at the development's front door. ("The rest of the site will be fenced," Peterson says, "and the fences will be screened by trees, big trees, so you can't see in or out. I learned that from Disney.")

Paley, in the '70s, was best-known as a jeweler, but his work in recent decades has been getting ever bigger. The sculpture he has fabricated for the National Harbor entrance looks something like the torch held up as a beacon by the Statue of Liberty. But this one is not depictive. It's burned off its depictiveness. Now it looks, instead, like a kind of abstract flame.

Peterson is thinking of calling it "The Beckoning." The Paley sculpture makes you lift your head. Yellow, gold and rust, the sculpture on its pedestal is 85 feet tall.

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