The Newseum--the $50 million homage to the news business that has brought nearly 1.5 million tourists to Northern Virginia since 1997--is looking toward Washington in search of larger quarters and a stake in the action of an increasingly energized downtown, a museum director said yesterday.
The old Woodward & Lothrop building at 11th and F streets NW and the former Department of Employment Services building at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street NW are leading candidates, but other sites may be considered, said Charles L. Overby, chairman and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum.
Rosslyn, the museum's home, is already bracing for next year's move by Gannett Co. and USA Today from the twin towers opposite the Newseum on Wilson Boulevard to a site near Tysons Corner. Arlington officials do not plan to let the Newseum get away easily.
"We love the Newseum," said County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). "They just need more space, and they're looking at their options. And I told them . . . 'If you need more space, we'll get right on it.' "
The museum exceeded attendance projections and now needs to expand beyond its 75,000 square feet on Wilson Boulevard, Overby said. It could take advantage of walk-in tourist traffic in the city, rather than relying on people making a special trip to Rosslyn.
"You have to fish where the fish are," Overby said. "It was a nice starter house we had, but we seem to have outgrown it."
Hugh Barton, director of Arlington Convention and Visitor Services, noted that the museum is the county's major tourist attraction after Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima memorial. "It would be a loss to Arlington, no doubt," he said. "It's kind of hard to think about. It has been such a solid member of the community."
The Newseum's lease is up in 2003. A final decision to leave Rosslyn has not been made, Overby said, and unless the museum can secure "just the right place" in Washington, then it may stay put. He predicted a decision by the end of the year.
Even as anguish at the potential loss spreads in Arlington, Washington officials and boosters are thrilled. Eric Price, deputy mayor for economic development, will meet shortly with Newseum officials, his spokesman said.
Charles Docter, a downtown activist, said: "It's a reaffirmation of the downtown. They recognize the truth that the action is downtown."
If the Newseum moves, all those helpful brown road signs in Northern Virginia will have to come down, or be adjusted to steer people across the Potomac River.
Overby said that Rosslyn and Arlington have been hospitable and that it would be hard to leave. But he wasn't optimistic about contiguous space becoming available. "We're pretty much landlocked," he said. The Newseum is in the market for double its space.
Funded by the Freedom Forum--a free press advocate established by Allen H. Neuharth, the former Gannett Co. chairman--the Newseum opened with great fanfare in 1997. The constantly updated exhibits drew crowds of tourists and schoolchildren on field trips. The creatively designed Freedom Park is next door, including a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A Newseum spokeswoman said it was unclear what would become of the park if the Newseum moves, but she noted that the Freedom Forum is not contemplating a similar move, so the park would still have a connection to a journalistic institution.
On Tuesday, top Freedom Forum and Newseum officials attended a breakfast speech by Price at the Hard Rock Cafe on the subject of downtown revitalization. The breakfast was hosted by the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association, and the room was buzzing with giddy awareness that a world-famous potential new neighbor was in the house. The Woodies building is owned by developer Douglas Jemal, who bought it for $28 million from the Washington Opera after the opera abandoned plans to move there. Jemal said he has met with Newseum officials, and Overby said they have toured Woodies.
"I think it's phenomenal for downtown D.C., whether they pick my site or someone else's site," Jemal said. "It's where they need to be and should be."
If the museum directors secured the employment services site on Pennsylvania Avenue--and they probably would have to prevail over stiff competition from other developers--the existing city office building would be razed and a museum erected. The historic Woodies building could not be changed on the outside but could be modified inside, Overby said. The city will solicit proposals for the employment services site next month, Price has said.
Some of the $50 million the Freedom Forum sank into the Rosslyn location could be saved in the form of exhibits and materials transferred to a new site, Overby said. Whether or not the museum moves, he added, the Freedom Forum will have to invest a substantial additional sum to keep the exhibit technology up to date. One thing that won't change: Admission will still be free.
Staff writers Ann O'Hanlon and Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.