Sitting on two acres in Georgetown, the West Heating Plant is a mothballed gem of federal architecture. It stands 110 feet tall, with 20,000 square feet of mostly empty space inside an elegant masonry shell. Long vertical window cuts give the box an elegant, severe grandeur, characteristic of the classically inspired but spare style of federal architecture of its time.
It is also, as a Sept. 5 letter written by Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, said, “the last surviving large-scale industrial building in the Georgetown waterfront neighborhood that may be available for redevelopment.”
Although it hasn’t served duty as a power plant for years, it is suddenly up for sale. Luebke’s letter, sent to the building’s owner, the General Services Administration, notes that the old heating plant is remarkably similar in important ways to the Bankside Power Station in London, which became the Tate Modern in 2000 and remains one of the most exciting destinations for contemporary art anywhere in the world.
At this point, however, the GSA is on track to sell the building through an Internet auction in early November, likely for commercial development.
“Once a federally owned asset, like the Georgetown West Heating Plant, is considered an excess property, GSA’s number one priority is to dispose of the property to make more efficient use of the government’s real estate portfolio and save taxpayer dollars,” the agency said in a statement.
Luebke’s letter, however, called for substantial public dialogue before that happens.
Mention the West Heating Plant to Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek and his eyes begin to dance.
“This building is in a perfect location to really, truly energize the cultural community in Washington,” says Koshalek, who helped lead the transformation of a warehouse space for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and who sat on the committee that selected the architects to transform the Bankside plant for the Tate.
Large industrial spaces can be remade into vibrant cultural centers relatively cheaply, Koshalek says. And they can bring in new constituencies for art. Washington’s version of the Tate Modern could be a hub for several cultural organizations limited by their space, including the Phillips Collection.
“It is a perfect project where you can build a new collaborative order among cultural institutions in Washington,” he says. “The city should not let this opportunity disappear.”
It is likely to disappear if something doesn’t happen fast, however. Luebke says he has had an informal conversation with the GSA, but no official response to his letter.
The GSA’s urgency for unloading the property may well have something to do with excesses in Las Vegas and the spending scandal that rocked its top leadership last spring. Making your slice of the government leaner is a good way to burnish a sullied bureaucratic reputation.
But a once-in-a-generation opportunity shouldn’t be squandered. It’s time to slow this process down, open up community dialogue and explore the historic dimensions of the building. The GSA should invite leaders of cultural institutions (large and small) to propose ideas for reusing this unique space.
It’s hard to imagine, but try: Georgetown, no longer just a place to eat dinner and shop, emerges as a center for performance, for exhibitions and large installation projects, for evening and weekend art classes, adding dimension to its waterfront, its nightlife and its identity.