A major museum on Pennsylvania Avenue will close within a year and make way for the opening of a prominent university center for graduate studies under a real estate deal announced Friday that is destined to transform a marquee address in the nation’s capital.
Johns Hopkins University is buying the landmark building that houses the Newseum for $372.5 million, a purchase that will enable the struggling cultural institution devoted to news and the First Amendment to seek a new home in the Washington area.
The Freedom Forum — the private foundation that created the Newseum and that is its primary funder — said the museum will remain open at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW for the rest of the year. Then, assuming the deal wins regulatory approval, the university will take control of the property and prepare to move several graduate programs to the site.
The Newseum has operated since 2008 at the Penn Quarter location, near the Mall and a few blocks northwest of the Capitol, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year but enduring financial challenges as it charged an admission fee while neighboring Smithsonian museums were free. The Freedom Forum announced in August 2017 that it was studying options for the building, including a sale, to escape what had become an untenable run of perennial budget deficits at the Newseum.
“This was a difficult decision, but it was the responsible one,” Jan Neuharth, chair and chief executive of the Freedom Forum, said in a statement. “We remain committed to continuing our programs — in a financially sustainable way — to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment and to increase public awareness about the importance of a free and fair press. With today’s announcement, we can begin to explore all options to find a new home in the Washington D.C. area.”
For Johns Hopkins, a prominent research university based in Baltimore, the purchase will raise its profile in the nation’s capital. The university’s School of Advanced International Studies, which for decades has been on Massachusetts Avenue NW, will move to the Pennsylvania Avenue building after it is remodeled. So will other D.C.-based graduate programs in business, nursing, and arts and sciences. Hopkins said it has about 3,300 faculty, students and staff in the city, in addition to faculty at Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington.
“Acquiring this iconic property in the heart of the nation’s capital will represent a transformative moment for Johns Hopkins University and place our research and expertise in the midst of national and global decision-making,” the university said in a statement. Johns Hopkins said it planned to turn the building into “a world-class academic space that can be optimized for current and future research, education and engagement.”
Hopkins said money for the purchase will come from selling its Massachusetts Avenue properties as well as university funds and a gift from billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg. The size of the former New York mayor’s donation was not disclosed. A graduate of Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg recently gave his alma mater a record $1.8 billion to support student financial aid and has previously given it hundreds of millions of dollars for other purposes.
Johns Hopkins officials said they plan to work with city and federal agencies to obtain necessary approvals. The property includes space occupied by the museum as well as 135 apartments and a restaurant, The Source by Wolfgang Puck.
Remodeling of the museum’s portion of the building would begin in fall 2020, Johns Hopkins officials said, with a goal of establishing more than 400,000 square feet of floor space for academic use. That is significantly more than what the university has in total in three buildings it owns and one location it rents on Massachusetts Avenue. A Hopkins official said there are no immediate plans to convert the building’s residential and restaurant space to academic use.
The university has been looking to upgrade its Washington facilities. Now, it will have a prime location on the avenue that links the White House and the Capitol.
“It goes well beyond the symbolism of close proximity to critical corridors of public power,” Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said in a telephone interview. “It’s a moment in which we are signaling our very firm determination to have greater impact on public policy formulation within Washington.” The site will be primarily a graduate center, he said, but will also open up opportunities for the university’s undergraduates in Baltimore to explore Washington through research and internships. And it will provide a forum for events involving lawmakers, federal officials and policymakers. “These kinds of activities can be dramatically augmented with the spaces we’re hoping to create for students and faculty,” Daniels said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement that city officials “are pleased that the site will remain dedicated to lifelong learning with another storied institution: Johns Hopkins University. We hope their plan for the building will allow it to continue to enliven Pennsylvania Avenue NW and be a resource for residents and visitors alike.”
The Freedom Forum, which owns 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, was established in 1991 by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today. Neuharth, who died in 2013, was the prime force behind the creation of the Newseum and its move to the splashy steel-and-glass edifice with a facade that displays a monumental inscription of the text of the First Amendment. Jan Neuharth, leader of the Freedom Forum, is his daughter.
The foundation incurred more than $300 million in debt to open the building in 2008. Even though Freedom Forum contributed $272 million from 2008 and 2016 to support its operations, the Newseum posted an annual deficit each year, tax records show.
In 2014, museum leaders considered a risky strategy to raise money by selling investors shares of the complex -- including the museum, a conference center, parking garage and apartments -- that were appraised for $677 million, internal documents show. They never acted on the plan.
Despite perennial financial pressures, the museum paid hefty salaries to top executives, many of whom came from journalism careers. The Freedom Forum, the Newseum and the affiliated Freedom Forum Institute also paid many of their board members, a rarity among nonprofit museums.
The building’s pending sale signals the start of a new chapter for the Newseum, which opened in Washington after an earlier incarnation in Northern Virginia. The Newseum said there will be no disruption to exhibitions this year for as long as it stays open.
“All of the artifacts on display in the museum will remain on exhibit for our visitors to learn from while the details of the agreement are settled,” Carrie Christoffersen, curator and executive director of the Newseum, said in a statement. “Our collection preserves journalism and news history, and we will continue to be responsible stewards of our permanent collection of historic artifacts and newspapers.”
When the building closes to the public at the end of the year, museum staff will remove the 1,100 objects on view. About a quarter are on loan from individuals and organizations, and those will be offered for return to their owners. The rest will be stored at a facility in Maryland as the museum plans for a new home. (The massive First Amendment tablet facing Pennsylvania Avenue is a museum asset, a Hopkins official said, and the Freedom Forum will retain ownership of it.)
Museum officials have not identified potential locations, but the next version of the Newseum will most likely be smaller.
"Since we opened our doors on Pennsylvania Avenue, technology has advanced to such a degree that we can achieve a much broader reach than we ever thought possible 11 years ago,” Jan Neuharth said in a statement. “Our world-class exhibits can be displayed in a smaller and nimbler footprint, and we can continue to travel them across the country and around the world.”