Everything about the Rock Creek Park Horse Center barn reflects the creativity of man: Its design, for instance, has received an award for architectural excellence and it is the home of a nationally known program that teaches handicapped children to ride horses.
There is one problem: The building is structurally unsafe.
Eight years after it was built at a cost of $322,000, the building has been condemned by the National Capital Park Service. The rafters, joints, beams, sideboards and roof all suffer from "serious deterioration," the Park Service has found, and plans now call for it to be demolished.
For barn-lovers -- and they are legion -- the potential loss is dispiriting enough. But to those who run the program for the children -- all of whom are mentally retarded, physically handicapped or emotionally disturbed -- it's crushing.
"Here is a program that has proven value," said Robert Douglas, the program's director, who took up horseback riding eight years ago as a partial means of combating his multiple sclerosis. "Suddenly, because we are without a shelter, it's over. The kids are out," he laments.
The therapeutic riding program has been acclaimed as a success story by organizers and the parents of the participants alike.
"As soon as the children get involved with the horses, all of us -- teachers and parents -- see the improvements," said Maureen Thomas, an official in the District of Columbia's special education department. "It boosts the youngsters' self-confidence and their motor skills. They open up."
About 500 D.C. children were to have participated in this year's program, which was to begin its eighth year last month. It has been postponed for the past three weeks; if it is resumed, the number will be cut to 250. At $70,000 a year in District of Columbia school funds, the program, known as the equine equivalent of the Special Olympics, has been called a bargain because of the educational and psychological benefits gained when children learn how to ride and care for horses.
With the barn beyond salvation, the cost estimates for a different or new shelter range between $300,000 and $600,000. One option is for the Park Service to move the horse center and the therapeutic riding program to a nearby barn -- complete with an all-weather indoor rink -- now used by the U.S. Park Police as a mounted horse training center. The latter then would be relocated. But the problem remains: Where will the money come from?
"In government terms," says Cynthia Wilson, an Interior Department official who has taken an interest in the case, " the money that's involved is not an astronomical sum, but sometimes it's harder to get a smaller amount than a larger."
The emergency comes at the gloomiest moment in the federal government budgetary cycle, Wilson said. "We are now working for next year's request, when we haven't even gotten this year's funds due to the tie-ups in Congress," she said.
The National Park Service says much the same thing. Jack Fish, the regional director for the Washington area, says that "Bob Douglas has done a fine job and he has a great program. But we're in a quandary because of insufficient funds. The money isn't there."
"There aren't really any villains in this tale," said Douglas. "All we have is an opportunity for someone to be a hero" and find a way to save the program.