It's Cyrus Katzen's eye for property -- not painting -- that is likely to make him immortal in the annals of Washington art history.

Katzen thinks big. A dentist turned real estate developer and megabanker, Katzen played a pioneering role in developing Baileys Crossroads, Tysons Corner and Crystal City.

If it weren't for Katzen's vision, American University might now be celebrating nothing more than a large addition to the small, 43-year-old Watkins Gallery.

Instead, AU and the arts community are gearing up for the opening of the $45 million Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center on a spectacular site on Massachusetts Avenue at Ward Circle.

It is a high-profile, signature building on an otherwise faceless campus. It brings together all of the university's scattered and outdated visual and performing arts spaces. It also brings AU's role in the arts into sharp focus.

The project was launched with a $15 million gift from the Katzens, $10 million in cash, the rest in art from their collection.

More than 20 area artists have happily agreed to help experiment with the gallery's swooping spaces in a show called "Soft Openings," which the public can see starting July 16. Sam Gilliam, perhaps Washington's most famous living artist, has already suspended his new, nine-part drape painting from the skylight in the art gallery's dramatic spiral staircase. Soon, others will be drawing directly on one of the gallery's curved walls.

The formal opening will be in October.

How It Happened

The Katzens recently talked about the genesis of the arts center at one of their favorite haunts: K's New York Deli at 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW, a building Katzen owned but has given to AU as an endowment to support the center. Over matzo ball soup, he tells the story.

"It really happened because my wife and her fellow painters from AU had a gallery upstairs in this building [over the deli], and they had an opening attended by several people from the university," Katzen recalls. Lunch with someone from the development office followed. "They were planning to expand the Watkins Art Building and asked if I'd make a donation, and maybe give them some art."

Myrtle Katzen adds: "We were a group of women who had informal painting sessions at the Watkins with Luciano Penay, one of the professors, and the university let us use a studio there. It meant the world to me."

Katzen, a shy, soft-spoken woman, worked as a fashion illustrator and briefly taught art at the Maret School.

"Oh, I'm an amateur," she says. "I know that."

But AU President Benjamin Ladner says Myrtle Katzen played a central role: "It was Mrs. Katzen, who became very appreciative of the support she had here. And that led to conversations with the Katzens about what they might do for the university."

A few years later, in 1997, when the project had stalled, Cy Katzen and Ladner met for lunch; Ladner reiterated his hopes for a 6,000-square-foot expansion of the Watkins Art Building. It wasn't big enough for Katzen: "My apartment was 8,000 square feet," he says.

"So I asked Dr. Ladner: 'What are you going to do with that piece of property on Ward Circle? Why not build an entirely new art facility there?' " Not possible, Ladner said. AU had tried to build a law school there but was thwarted by strong opposition from the neighbors.

Katzen took the challenge: "Why would people object to a beautiful art gallery? I'd love to live next to a gallery. And there's nothing to lose except two decrepit old buildings with a swimming pool and basketball court."

Ladner agreed to give it a try. But when repeated hearings before the D.C. Zoning Commission again turned against them, Katzen decided to try a new tack.

"You know what made them change their minds? I called my old friend Rep. Tom Davis and asked him to come with me to talk to Mayor [Anthony] Williams. And he told Williams, 'If you don't want this arts facility in D.C., we'll take the $15 million and build it at George Mason in Virginia.' That did it!" a gleeful Katzen says. "With the mayor's support, we got permission from the zoning commission to go ahead." Bulldozers were swiftly dispatched to clear the property.

The Art Collection

After lunch, the Katzens give a tour of their art-filled apartment in a luxury building in Chevy Chase. Crammed floor to ceiling with art, wind-up toys, carved jade and other objects, the apartment contains everything from Picasso drawings to toy monkeys dressed like dentists. The confusion is amplified by mirrored walls and the occasional mirrored ceiling. You have to hunt for the treasures. But there are some.

Recently, Katzen says, he has been buying "museum-quality" art as part of his gift to the new center, including works on paper by Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, George Bellows, Milton Avery, Andy Warhol, Red Grooms, Larry Rivers and others. He has also bought sculpture: two by Jean Dubuffet, four by Nancy Graves and two nude beauties in glass by Nicolas Africano. His most visible new sculpture is Fred Eversley's 3,000-pound polished bronze abstraction, newly installed on the lawn in front of the Katzen Arts Center.

Before the commitment to AU, the Katzens bought things they liked, often works by artists they knew and wanted to support -- including Myrtle Katzen's AU teachers, Penay and Gene Davis, as well as Ben Summerford and Robert D'Arista. "We bought this drawing because we wanted to support John Grazier, who is such a wonderful draftsman," Myrtle Katzen says, pointing to a surreal pencil drawing of phone booths. In one hallway, there are more than a dozen Wyeth-like watercolors by the late Ted Betts. "Isn't it amazing that he can paint like that," he says.

"We like folk art and glass," Cy Katzen says, pointing out a large Dale Chihuly bowl that sits on a coffee table not far from a miniature blown-glass rendition of a seder and another of a bris by a glassmaker he admires. Katzen is clearly partial to fine craftsmanship -- not so surprising for a dental surgeon. But the line between craft and art is lost here.

"First thing you have to know," says Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator of the Katzen center's art gallery, "is that the gallery is not about the Katzens' collection. It is about the Katzens doing something generous and wonderful for the university and the Washington art community at large."

When the Katzen Arts Center formally opens, the gallery will mount two shows from the Katzens' private collection: "Master Drawings" and "David Bates, Nancy Graves and Gene Davis," three artists they own in depth. It will also show selections from AU's 4,500-item Watkins collection, which has been rarely seen in public. Both collections will be featured in future shows but will not be on permanent view. Other inaugural shows will feature San Francisco's Bruce Conner and Washington area wood sculptor Emilie Brzezinski.

Combining art and the performing arts could generate creative sparks. "Crossover has become so much a part of art today that it made sense to consolidate all the visual and performing arts in one place," says multimedia artist Luis Silva, who chairs AU's art department. He acknowledges that in terms of studio art, the university has built a very traditional department and has often been perceived as conservative. "This building provides us with facilities that integrate new media into our curriculum," Silva says.

One example of synergy is already in the works. On Nov. 5 and 6, the AU Chamber Singers will perform "Art Inspired by Art," a program of music for voice stimulated by the other arts.

The FBI File

Until now, Katzen had a relatively low profile in the art world, though his gifts were widespread. After Sally Smith, founder of the Washington Lab School, met Myrtle Katzen at a spa, the Katzens donated enough money to turn an old carriage house into urgently needed classrooms. "Cy said he didn't want his name on the building, but I put it there anyway because I thought he really did," Smith says. "I truly like and admire this guy. He's earned it all himself, and he's not a phony."

He is also funny and self-deprecating ("I ruined Puerto Rico: I built all the McDonald's there"). Now 87, Katzen got his first job in the 1920s.

"When I was 9, I worked for a butcher at the O Street Market, selling pigs' feet," Katzen recalls. By the time he went to Georgetown University on a scholarship, he'd moved up to selling ladies' shoes on F Street. He graduated from Georgetown Dental School and worked as a dental surgeon for 25 years, moonlighting as a real-estate broker. He brokered some of the first parcels that became Crystal City and Tysons Corner, and developed the Culmore Shopping Center at Baileys Crossroads when cows still roamed the area. In 1971 he built the Embassy Row Hotel near Dupont Circle, a bad review of which still nags him.

"They can't say bad things about this building," Katzen says of the arts center.

He failed only once. At age 16, he tried to get a job as a messenger for the FBI. Decades later, when the Freedom of Information Act made it possible for him to retrieve his FBI file, he found there was nothing in it but his 1935 job application. "Can you believe this?" he says, handing over the document. Attached was a memo from Clyde Tolson to his boss and close friend, bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover, saying that Katzen was turned down because of his "foreign appearance" and because "he will not develop."

Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen not only donated $15 million to American University in cash and artworks, but Cyrus Katzen helped win zoning approval for the arts center.Prized possessions: Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen at their art-laden Chevy Chase apartment.