Somewhere, its members knew, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) would find a home. Sally Carlson Crowell, their president, had been looking since she helped found the workshop in 1972 in response to a need for a community school devoted to the arts.
Demand for workshop courses and instruction quickly outstripped the supply of buildings where the students could be taught. The workshop nestled in four churches during the first two years.
Then, in September 1977, after three years of refuge in the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, church officials told CHAW that even they did not have the patience of saints.
By then the smell of the greast paint and the roar of the crowd was in the workshop's blood. Its members began following every lead, looking for a home. "We were highly motivated," recalls Janice Delaney, one of the nine board members, "because we knew we were going to be out on the street."
Then Crowell heard through the grapevine that the Benjamin Brown French School at 7th an G streets SE might be auctioned. The school, built in 1904, had been used as a manual arts training center for neighborhood children until 1942 when it was leased to the Marines. They held it until 1959 when it was yielded to the D.C. Department of Highways. After three years as a storage area, the building was left empty (except for resident pigeons) for 17 years.
Crowell, a Howard Univeristy graduate and former student at The Boston Conservatory, set out to snare the building on a $1-a-year, 99-year lease with an agreement that workshop members would renovate and maintain it for their nonprofit community school.
They raised $50,000 and by March 1979 obtained. a matching grant from the Department of the Interior through the District's Department of Housing and Community Development.
Two weeks later, the Marines landed. Actually, they came over from their barracks around the corner to help clean the place. They found hundreds of dead pigeons.
"There was one good sign," Crowell says. "At least there weren't any rats." Contractors and legions of friends went to work weekend after weekend, hammering and sawing until they had fashioned an airy, sunny workshop.
Now in the place of pigeons, there is a first-floor studio for tap and ballet classes. Across the hall, there is a lounge which will eventually become an exhibit hall. One of several small rooms off the lounge will become a kitchen.
Upstairs is an airy "Shoeless Room," with seven large windows put in by Crowell's legion of volunteers, and a combination 20-by-40-foot music, art and pottery room. A large storeroom contains enough costumes for a summer of "Shakespeare in the Park."
Only the basement is left to transform; one side will be a locker room and shower. Workshop members hope to finish it in time for the facility's official dedication. Oct. 15-18. The other side, sometime later, will be pottery and phtography studios. And when the last tool is laid aside, Sally Carlson Crowell isn't sure she'll be able to cope.
"For the last two years all I've been saying is 'once the building is finished' . . . Now that we're almost finished, I'm not sure I can really believe it."
None of the clutter seems to have affected the 25 children who last Friday culminated a three-week camp session by performing three plays for which the 5-6, 7-8 and 9-12 age groups composed the music and lyrics. Based on an "Underwater Fantasy" theme, the three groups spent three hours per day working on their masterpieces, while still finding time to produce pottery and pictures taken by homemade box cameras. All were displayed before beaming parents.
The next session, which starts Aug. 4, is a small slice of what the workshop offers the community. Classes for adults, children and even preshcoolers run the gamut from tap dance and tumbling to hatha yoga. There are also seven performing companies associated with the workshop. Like their creator, they run morning, noon and night.
"Now that we're so close to finishing, it's amazing how fast it's really gone," Crowell said. "The hardest part was getting in here. For the first month I thought I was getting an ulcer. I woke up at 4 a.m. every day and worried about whether we'd be able to do it."
Somehow, they've made it. Perhaps now Crowell will be able to step back, take a deep breath, and smile at a job well done.
"I doubt it," she told a visitor. "There'll always be something else to do. If there isn't, I'll probably make something up. I hate doing nothing."