Federal bureaucrats willing, Washington will soon have a downtown arts center, charged with the creative energy of 26 local painting, sculpture, pottery, poetry, photo, film, theater, dance, folk art and musci groups.
They will all be housed in the former Lansburgh's department store, sharing work and exhibition spaces and two small theaters.
The upper stories of the department-store building complex will continue to be used for offices and storage of the National Archive and Record Service. The Archives will be part of the proposed Washington Humanities and Arts Center, presenting special exhibitons from its vast collection of memorabilia.
The Archives, in fact -- and more specifically Albert Meisel, the assistant archivist for education programs -- originated the idea for this experiment in concentrated "non-elitist art," as Meisel calls it, as well as federal-private cooperation. It is an experiment bound to electrify the city home-grown culture and attract larger audiences. The visitors will come not only from the city and the region, but alos from the Mall.
The tourists from the Mall, who now seem to consider Pennsylvania Avenue as something of a Chinese Wall, would bring money to the stilldingy downtown business district and bolster attendance at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Collection of Fine Arts and the Pension Building exhibits.
Lansburgh's has several buildings at 8th and E streets The most promirent of them is an elegant structure with a white, Louis Sullivan-inspired terra cotta facade, completed in 1916. Founded by German immigrants in 1882, the department store flourished for almost 90 years until it succumbed to downtown decay In 1974, a year after is was closed, the National Archives leased the building for storage.It is now owned by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.
The corporation was quick to respond favorably to Meisel's proposal to turn the building complex into a local arts center. As one of the corporation's own early reports stated, under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations Pennsylvania Avenue planning was done "without efforts to seek the approval of the District of Columbia government and residents." PADC promised "to the more responsive not only to changes in attitudes about grandeur and historic preservation, but also to the people who live and work in the city."
The people reciprocated. Mayor Marion Barry had talked a good deal about the proposed arts center in his election campaign. Now one of his campaign aides, Philip W. Ogilvie, is directing the project.
Meisel and Ogilvie sent question-Laires to a list of some 400 cultural groups to ascertain their interest in the center as tenants or occasional users. Practically all of those organized enough to open their mail wanted to participate.
Architects Anderson Notter / Mariani, a joint venture with experience in adapting old buildings to new cultural uses, were called in to work with the participants and accommodate their space needs.
Last month, all concerned, including PADC agreed to a sketch plan which allocates 2 1/2 floors of the building complex to the Humanities and Arts Center and includes private galleries, a major performance theater, a film theater, a small "black box" experimental performance space which could also be used for dinner theater or luncheon concerts, and a public restaurant. The display windows will be used for various exhibts. The box office, printing equipment, the woodshop and other work space will be shared.
The Center is to be managed by a committee on which all participants, the city government, the Archives, PADC and citizens will be represented.
The need for the Center is evident. Most art groups have no permanent space or are in danger of losing their present, low-rent quarters because of the building boom.
A summer workshop of George Washington University city plainning students under prof. Sherwin Greene has just found that about 350,000 people now work in downtown Washington -- more than in any other American central business district except New York City and Chicago. But downtown Washington offers little after working hours. The GW students say that far moe than the presently established institutions is needed to attract and entertain them.
To hold this vast potential audience ad to cope with crime, street repairs. street cleaning, park maintenance and other expenses, downtown needs more residents of various income groups, more artistic activity, more entertainment, bars, restaurants, nightclubs ad theaters. The Lansburgh project can provide an impetus.
The rub is that under the present plan, the Public Building Service of the General Services Administration would first have to spend a million or two (exact estimates are not yet complete) to bring the Lansburgh structures up to building code standards. It would ake another $1.5 million to $2.5 million to build in the theaters, and other special spaces.
So far, GAS seems reluctant to take the first decisive step.
As the city's largest industry, the federal government, it would seem, has the same obligation to contribute to this city's domestic tranquility and cultural life, that the steel industry feels toward "pittsburgh or the photographic industry feels toward Rochester.
Under its last administrator, Jay Solomon, GSA established a policy to make public buildings public and to use GSA's buildings and services not just to improve goverment but also the life of the governed.
That policy clearly applies to Lansburgh's. CAPTION: Illustration, Plan for the Washington Humanities & Arts Center