Mayor Anthony Williams recently suggested selling several large city government buildings and moving the services housed in them to neighborhoods. Whatever the fiscal merit of the proposal, the mayor should remove the District's Municipal Center (300 Indiana Ave. NW) from the list of four buildings being considered for sale.
This 1941 building, home to the Metropolitan Police Department and the Motor Vehicles Department, is visited by almost every District resident.
A giant, brilliantly colored and detailed map of the city is at the C Street entrance. Don't remember seeing it the last time you went to the DMV? Maybe you didn't look down. The wonderful mosaic terrazzo floor, made from tens of thousands of tiny pieces of colored stone, is as beautiful as the day the building opened.
The building has two interior courtyards that the average visitor never enters. But in each are remarkable ceramic sculptural reliefs, the largest in the world at the time of their unveiling. The first mural, in the west courtyard, titled "Democracy in Action," depicts the work of the Metropolitan Police Department, District of Columbia Fire Department and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The 50 life-size figures, which include a diverse mix of men, women and children dressed in the fashion of the time, feature city employees putting out fires, directing traffic and making arrests. The hustle and bustle of activity represented in Waylande Gregory's dramatic 80-foot-long work also shows a child being rescued from a burning building, a police officer returning a lost dog to its young owner, demonstrators marching and criminals being roughed up by policemen.
The relief in the east courtyard, also 80 feet long and eight feet high, represents "Health and Welfare." Hildreth Meiere's Works Progress Administration-sponsored mural depicts 47 people: social workers, doctors, nurses, laboratory chemists and food and safety inspectors at work and families applying for Social Security benefits and adoption privileges.
At the western end of the Indiana Avenue facade stands yet another often-overlooked civic symbol: the Police Memorial Fountain. Designed by John Joseph Earley, this simple octagonal fountain with concrete mosaic decoration was dedicated in 1941 as a memorial to city police officers who lost their lives in World War I. It is now the site of annual ceremonies honoring fallen law enforcement officers.
Anyone who has stopped to look at and appreciate the Municipal Center's architectural and artistic riches knows that it is much more than just another city office building. I urge Mayor Williams to look closely at what he proposes to dispose of before deciding this building is surplus.
Mayor Williams has repeatedly spoken of his legacy. I suggest that part of that legacy be the designation of the Municipal Center as a D.C. and national historic landmark so that no subsequent administration mistakenly prevents future generations from enjoying this 20th century tribute to our civic pride.
--Alexander M. Padro
is a local historian and preservation activist.