"This is the first building that I ever cut in half - and I hope it's the last," said Louis Pedri as his 70-pound, diamond-edged, power-driven disk saw sliced through a terra cotta lion's head above 15th and G Streets NW.
Pedri, a wiry, West Virginia stone mason who followed in his father's footsteps, has spent the last three weeks carving, chopping and pounding and eight-foot swath through the historic Keith-Albee building in the name of both preservation and progress.
When he's through cutting, the wrecking ball will swing against the ornate theater wall to the east of the cut. The rest of the 68-year-old building, including the old Keith's lobby in 15th Street, will remain standing for the time being.
Pedri has been carving up the Keith-Albee because of a May 4 court order which allowed the Oliver T. Carr Co., which owns the building, to demolish the section housing the theater but not the entire structure.
The eight-foot swath will insure the stability of the 15th Street section when the wreckers start working with ball and crane.
The destruction of the theater ends two decades of off-again, on-again demolition plans for the Keith-Albee, once a premier vaudeville house which President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson are said to have frequented.
All that remains now of the 1,500-seat theater is a portion of the sagging balcony which looks out on the demolished stage and a bit of pretty plaster work to stage left.
Pedri, who remembers going to the movies in the theater in the mid-sixties, doesn't feel very good about cutting up the building. He is not alone.
A local preservation group, known as Don't Tear it Down, which was instrumental in saving the old Post Office and the Willard Hotel on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue, has gone to court several times to save the Keith-Albee from demolition. The group so far has had to settle for half a loaf.
On June 25, the Carr company, Don't Tear It Down and the city government will return to court to decide the fate of the west portion. The Carr company is asking for more than $5 million in preservation funds from the city.
"This block is crucial," says Leila Smith, a member of the Board of Directors of the preservation group. "The Albee building, the adjoining Metropolitan Bank building and the Rhodes Tavern are our major project right now. They are important buildings in an important block."
The Carr company plans to build a$60 million office and retail complex on the block.
Betts Abel, an official for the Carr company project, says the block is also important to the company. "That building (Keith-Albee) is phase one of a three-step construction plan. We have plans for that site which do not include retention of the building. However, we are waiting to hear from the city on (preservation) funding."
Pedri, in the meantime, will finish his work as "building-slicer" today. They he'll be off to lay curbing at 19th and I streets NW. CAPTION: Picture 1, Louis Pedri, a stone mason, cuts through a terra cotta slab of the Keith-Albee building. Half the structure will be razed. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post; Picture 2, An eight-foot section of the Keith-Albee Building is being removed in order that half of the building can be razed. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post