The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council has quietly won permission to tear down the two historic buildings that were donated by the federal government to house its museum in memory of victims of the Nazi death camps.
Earlier this month, the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation approved a request from the memorial group to raze the red-brick, two-story buildings that had been hailed for their symbolic resemblance to the death camp barracks of Europe. The buildings are located next to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving plant on 14th Street, near the Mall.
Now, however, the Holocaust council has decided the buildings are not what it needs, and should be removed to make space for a new building that could accommodate the exhibits, library and conference center planned for the museum.
"We have spent the last couple of years studying how to use the facility . . . to see how far we could stretch it, but, finally, we realized we couldn't meet our mission and keep our buildings," said Micah H. Naftalin, senior deputy director of the council.
"Whatever symbolic significance was first seen in the buildings has always been secondary to the site near the Mall and what we want to do. Now, we have an option of making an architectural statement about the Holocaust, starting from scratch."
When the buildings were donated by the government in 1981, council members were struck by their similarity to concentration camp barracks.
Elie Wiesel, chairman of the council and a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was quoted at the time as saying, "This is it. This is it," when he first saw the buildings. Wiesel, who was in Ethiopia yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
Hyman Bookbinder, another member of the council, said yesterday that he was "not happy" about the decision to take the historic buildings down.
"When I first saw those buildings, I was struck, emotionally roused," said Bookbinder. "The buildings had a certain emotive impact, and I think many on the council agreed with me. But we have had to balance that emotional feeling against the pragmatic concerns. It wasn't easy, but I was persuaded that, in the long run, this would be better for the museum."
The memorial group won approval of its plan to demolish the buildings only two weeks after presenting the idea to the advisory council. No date has been set for the demolition, but it will probably be sometime next year.
The advisory council, a presidentially appointed commission that oversees federal projects to ensure protection of national historic treasures, said that the two buildings were of "marginal" historic significance and "not worth keeping when balanced against the needs of the Holocaust council."
Preservationists admit the turn-of-the-century buildings, which were built as annexes to the imposing Auditor's Building on the corner of 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW, are minor treasures, compared to many of the historic sites in Washington.
The buildings housed stables and laundry facilities when first built in 1902 and 1904. They were nominated to the historic register several years ago as part of the complex that includes the Auditor's Building.
"What bothers us about this decision is not that the buildings should necessarily be saved, but that there was no place in the decision for public input," said Nellie Longsworth, president of Preservation Action, the national lobbying organization. "We found out after the fact, and most people won't find out until they drive by and see the wrecking balls in action."
The General Services Administration gave the buildings to the Holocaust council in 1981. The council, a federal agency established by Congress in 1980 to build, fund and operate a museum and memorial to the Holocaust victims, now plans to include permanent and changing exhibits, conference space, a teaching facility, archives, a memorial auditorium and administration offices.
George M. Notter Jr. of the architectural firm of Notter Finegold & Alexander Inc. said that the renovation plans he drew for the two historic buildings quickly demonstrated to the council that there wouldn't be enough space for everything they wanted. Notter said they considered building below ground, but were hampered by a high water table and the high cost of building underground.
Notter said that one of the buildings is only 45 feet wide and that the council is being offered artifacts that would be difficult to exhibit in cramped space. One of the artifacts the council is considering, said Naftalin, is a full-sized rail car of the kind used to transport Jews and other Nazi victims to the camps.
Representatives of the D.C. Preservation League said they agreed the buildings were of "lesser" importance than the Auditor's Building, but that they hated to see any historic building razed instead of reused.
"This is a tough one," said Robert Peck, president of the league. "No, they are not great buildings, but I'm not sure this is the best solution."
The historic preservation officer for the District of Columbia, Carol B. Thompson, said at the time the Auditor's Building complex was nominated to the historic register, that the two annexes should not have been included. Thompson was included in the discussions of the advisory council and agreed with the council's decision.
John Fowler, deputy executive director for the advisory council, said that the commission moved rapidly on the Holocaust council's request because of deadlines mandated by the original legislation for the museum.
"Our process normally includes a public hearing if we think that is necessary, but, in this case, the state preservation officer wasn't pushing for saving the buildings and there was what appeared to be a limited interest in the annex buildings," said Fowler. "The request also moved quickly because the Holocaust council came in with their case very well prepared. They had done a lot of work and it was clear they needed more space."
Naftalin said that the current plans for the museum call for 250,000 square feet of space, roughly 100,000 square feet more than could have been accommodated in the two buildings, even with a three-level, below-grade expansion.
Notter said that while the council theoretically could build a 130-foot building on the site, he is working instead on plans for a low-rise museum building at its request. He said that is it unlikely the council would build anything taller than the 95-foot Bureau of Printing and Engraving.
The legislation for the museum requires that the council have the museum under construction by October, and that the final plans for the museum be reviewed by the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission, and be approved by the Secretary of Interior.
"We have an absolute commitment to enhance, through the design of the new building and landscaping, the historic value of the main Auditor's building," said Naftalin. "We feel this will help to set off that building in a way the current shed-like buildings don't. In fact, they detract."