The Smithsonian Institution, which has been looking for more space downtown, has snapped up the landmark Victor Building at Ninth and H streets NW for $86 million.

The building, one of the oldest in the downtown corridor and once a home for the legendary Central Liquors store, was purchased from the John Akridge Cos. Real estate developer John E. Akridge III bought the building in 1997 and tore down the outdated and crumbling offices behind the facade. The Renaissance Revival-style facade, protected by preservation status, is 110 feet high and right now is the only remnant of the original 1909 structure. A new 330,000-square-foot building is rising behind it.

The acquisition expands the Smithsonian presence in the Gallery Place neighborhood, where MCI Center and the Shakespeare Theatre have added to a cultural renewal. Two Smithsonian facilities--the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art--occupy the historic Patent Office Building a block south of the Victor Building. The two museums, which have seen a steady increase in visitors in recent years, they will close in January for an extensive renovation.

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian made a public, and ultimately unsuccessful, bid for the old Woodward & Lothrop department store, which is one block west of the two galleries. A private developer outbid the Smithsonian and has a renovation in the works.

Another sign of the downtown revival was the recent groundbreaking by Pepco, one of the city's largest companies, for its new headquarters directly across the street from the Victor.

The Victor will provide permanent space for 320 employees of the two museums, and the Archives of American Art, a Smithsonian office with 13 million items on the visual arts. Some of the space will be public, including a new Center for American Art. "We will be able to showcase the resources we have, making available the works we have on paper that currently are only available through appointment," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Museum of American Art. The public will be able to search the database of 500,000 items, use the library and the image collections, and consult with the curators, she said.

When the renovation of the Patent Office Building is complete, almost all the employees will stay in the Victor and the museums will have an additional 60,000 square feet for exhibitions and public events.

The construction of the new building inside the shell of the Victor is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

"The Victor Building turns out to be the most useful solution for the Smithsonian. We will be able to design the interior spaces specifically for the needs of the three organizations that will occupy it," said I. Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian secretary. The purchase was made with private funds, according to the Smithsonian, and outfitting the office space will be an additional expense.

The Victor Building was built for patent attorney Victor J. Evans, and the offices were rented to lawyers. His company became the largest patent firm in the world at the time. Evans, who also specialized in Indian tribal law, was involved in the famous case that got the land in South Dakota belonging to the Sioux returned to the tribe.

The building, and Evans, have several links to the Smithsonian. A major collector of Indian artifacts, Evans gave his collection to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. His interest also extended to rare animals. On his property in Northwest Washington, Evans had a private zoo and gave several animals and birds to the National Zoo.

"The Smithsonian was intrigued with the fact that [the Victor] had historic significance. The more traditional look and feel is consistent with the Smithsonian image and reputation," said Akridge, who had the building on the market to rent until the Smithsonian made the purchase offer.

The connection with Central Liquors gives the purchase another touch of local history. Going to Central Liquors was a pilgrimage for area residents and tourists. The store, which still exists at another location downtown, was a crowded warehouse of bottles and friendly help and was known to have some of the best prices on the East Coast.

During the renovation of the Patent Office Building, nearly 600 items from the Smithsonian collections will tour the country in eight thematic exhibitions.

CAPTION: The Victor Building, at Ninth and G streets, will house 320 employees.