The grand staircase of the Corcoran Gallery of Art on July 12, 2012. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

The postponement of a decision last week by the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board is troubling. At its monthly meeting, the board heard testimony about the Corcoran Gallery and whether historic landmark protection should be extended to its interior spaces. George Washington University, which took over the Corcoran’s art school and building last summer, strongly opposes extending landmark status to more than a few, largely ceremonial areas easily accessible by the public. The D.C. Preservation League has submitted a nomination to include much more of the building, including galleries to which the public once had ready access before the Corcoran’s board of directors decided to commit institutional suicide by dividing the school from the museum, handing over the art to the National Gallery of Art and letting GWU take over the educational program.

In most cases, the review board hears testimony from interested parties, including building owners, considers a carefully researched staff report from the city’s historic preservation office, then deliberates and makes a decision. The staff report carries great weight with the board, and in this case it called for a far more extensive historic designation of the interior than many were expecting. But after citing the late arrival of new information from GWU, and quickly speaking with individual board members in sotto voce conversations inaudible to the public, board chair Gretchen Pfaehler suggested holding off on a decision until next month’s meeting on April 23.

Perhaps we should read nothing more into the delay than what was publicly stated: The board wants more time to deliberate on the case. But any time a decision is delayed, there is always concern that the real deliberations will happen outside of the public’s hearing. Testimony in the case is now closed, and a GWU spokeswoman said the university will not lobby the board between now and the final decision. She also said that the delay will make it more difficult for the university to make changes to the building before a new class arrives late this summer. A city spokesman also said, “The Board will not be discussing or deliberating on the case amongst themselves or with the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office staff, and cannot discuss the case further with interested parties.”

But this is Washington. Influence is everywhere, and though the board is independent and includes professional experts in design and history (along with mayoral appointees), the delayed decision opens up concern that the deliberative process could be swayed between now and then. GWU is extraordinarily unhappy with the staff recommendation that much of the formerly public space of the building be designated as historically significant. Indeed, Andi Adams, an architectural historian who argued the university’s case before the board, seemed almost apoplectic at times during her testimony. The university, she argued, would be greatly inconvenienced by what it feels is an unprecedented intrusion on its private property rights.

Cry me a river. The process of designating the interiors as historic began in October 2012, well before GWU made its ultimately successful bid to scoop up the remains of the Corcoran’s college and take over its landmark building on 17th Street NW. The university also received some $43 million in the deal (money that should have been used by the former Corcoran to purchase art, not as a dowry in its shameful act of self-evisceration). It also received the Fillmore building, in Georgetown, once owned by the Corcoran, and now up for sale (it could fetch $14 million). Much of the money that GWU cashed out of the wounded Corcoran will go to renovating the building, but GWU can’t claim that it wasn’t aware of the possibility the building would have its interiors landmarked. That was part of the risk it assumed when it added the Corcoran to its ever-expanding real estate portfolio.

Nor can it claim that the robust recommendations in the staff report aren’t entirely within the parameters of smart, forward-looking historic preservation. That’s a second reason for concern about the decision to postpone deliberations on the bid to landmark the interiors. This is a no brainer.

Although it’s rare for so much of a building to be landmarked on the inside, it’s not unprecedented, and if there’s any building in the city that deserves to be robustly protected, it’s the Corcoran.The application to extend historic protection to the interiors meets every criterion of sensible historic preservation. The Corcoran is architecturally significant, historically significant, artistically significant and culturally significant; it has played an enormous role not just in the development of the arts in Washington, but the history of museums and art throughout the United States. Although it was a private museum, it was very much a shared public asset, given in trust to the people of Washington, and for more than a century enjoyed by them as one the city’s preeminent and best-loved public spaces. The architect of its original building, Ernest Flagg, was greatly influential during the classical revival in American architecture near the end of the 19th century, and the Corcoran design was well known, admired and emulated by other museums.

GWU representatives suggested dark possibilities if the board landmarks more than the minimal space proposed by GWU. Other property owners could be affected; perhaps there will be a rush to destroy interior spaces in advance of other historic designations. This is risible. The real problem, and the one that both Adams and Charles Barber, the university’s deputy general counsel, kept coming back to during the hearing, is the cost and inconvenience of the designation. They argue that the university needs flexibility to continue the building’s use as a center for arts education, and that given how much both art and educational practices may change over time, they want the freedom to adapt the space as they wish.

It’s almost as if they’ve never heard of historic preservation and the intellectual arguments on which it rests. The Corcoran’s building is in great need of renovation, but much of its interior space is relatively unchanged since the museum opened the building in 1897. The proportion and arrangement of its galleries, the integrity of its design and ornamentation, the magnificent use of natural light, the drama of its staircases, all of these give visitors key data and an essential experience of architecture, art and culture during one of the great periods of American cultural ambition.

Destroying them, or altering them beyond recognition, would do grave violence not just to one of the city’s most important and cherished buildings, it would be a fatal blow to GWU’s pretensions to care about the humanities.

Fortunately, for all the university’s sputtering, the responsibility for being steward of this priceless cultural artifact isn’t all that onerous. Landmark designation simply means that there will be an extra layer of scrutiny for any substantial change they plan to make to the interior. As a public institution, there’s no reason for the university to fear transparency and oversight when it comes to managing this exquisite treasure. Lots of cutting-edge institutions, both public and commercial, happily reside in historic spaces.

As for the board’s delay, it’s also possible that there may be momentum by the members to consider a landmark designation even more extensive than the one contained in the staff report. The D.C. Preservation League made a compelling case for just that, and if the board’s deliberations bring them to that conclusion, it will be worth the wait. But GWU is very powerful, and very well connected, and so this delay can only cause anxiety to anyone familiar with the way decisions are made in the nation’s capitol. The university doesn’t have the weight of reason and logic on its side, but at least it has time. The decision on April 23 will be closely watched.