A key National Park Service official said yesterday that the developer restoring the Lincoln Building "panicked or something" in painting over part of Washington's largest exterior mural in order to immediately take $412,500 in historic preservation tax credits.
Jerry Rogers, who oversees the tax-credit program for the Park Service, said the Wynmark Development Corp. could have taken the tax credit on its 1984 income tax return without receiving formal certification that it had successfully completed restoration of the building at 514 10th St. NW.
Rogers said the developer then could have taken up to 30 months to appeal a Park Service rejection of the disputed portion of the mural and to receive official certification for the tax credit.
Wynmark last month spent $10,000 to paint over illusionary architectural effects designed by noted muralist Richard Haas on the front of the building. The Park Service threatened to withhold the tax credit if the artwork was not wiped out, on grounds that it changed the historic character of the building. After a work crew painted the front of the 10-story building a beige tone, the Park Service certified the tax credit.
Mark G. Griffin, one of Wynmark's owners, said he had never heard of the provision allowing for a 30-month period to win certification for the tax credit after it had been submitted to the Internal Revenue Service.
"If that were the case, I wish someone would have told us," he said.
Rogers acknowledged that "it's probably true we didn't give him that information. We usually think a developer knows what he's doing. We don't give tax advice."
Nellie Longsworth, president of Preservation Action, a national lobbying group for historic preservation, said Wynmark "missed a big opportunity by not appealing" the Park Service rejection of Haas' artwork on the front of the building, which faces Ford's Theatre and is next door to Petersen House, the house where Abraham Lincoln died after being shot in the theater.
"In my view, the owner goofed," Longsworth said.
Griffin said Park Service officials in the agency's regional office in Philadelphia told Wynmark that it could appeal the decision. But he said the firm believed "we needed to have the tax credit settled by April 15."
Griffin said the firm still plans to submit a proposal to the Park Service to complete Haas' $75,000 mural.
The Park Service has allowed a large portrait of a young Lincoln with an ax for chopping wood to remain on the south side of the building, as well as an illusionary window with a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial.
In addition to the architectural effects on the front of the building, Wynmark also wants approval for the continuation of Haas' mural, done in a style reminiscent of Art Deco, on the building's north side. That portion would depict a presidential Lincoln at Gettysburg and include another "window" with a painted view of the Old Post Office Building.
Even if the Park Service eventually rejects the artwork, Wynmark, under the terms of the historic preservation tax credit regulations, would be free after five years to make whatever changes to the building it likes without losing the tax credit it is taking now. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 entitles owners to a 25 percent tax investment credit if they rehabilitate a historic building according to standards set by the Interior Department. The Lincoln Building, built in 1923, is in the Pennsylvania Avenue historic district and thus eligible for the tax credit.
At a press conference yesterday, Haas and Wynmark officials were highly critical of Park Service actions in first deciding not to review the mural and then ordering the front of the Lincoln Building repainted under threat of losing the tax credit.
Haas, a critically acclaimed master of trompe l'oeil, or illusionary artworks, said, "I was confused, shocked and angry. I knew it had to be bureaucratic insanity because no individual could have come up with such an action."
Richard Naing, Wynmark's president, said, "What the Park Service did was to turn the administration of a good law designed to stimulate investment in historic properties into an unpredictable process by changing the rules in midstream. The Park Service needs to understand that firms like Wynmark cannot and will not gamble with this kind of process. We just can't afford it."
But the Park Service's Rogers said Wynmark should have appealed the Park Service decision to Ernest A. Connally, a Park Service architectural historian who serves as the agency's chief appeals officer.
Nonetheless, Rogers described Haas' mural as "a fine piece of artwork. It's sad this happened.
"I thought it looked good. But it's a separate question whether the mural preserved the historical character of the building," he said.