When Dominick Cardella established the Artifactory on Indiana Avenue, the neighborhood was blighted and nearly deserted. Forty years later, it’s a very different place—and it soon will have no Artifactory. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Ignore the aroma of Starbucks wafting in from next door, ignore the shirt-sleeved cubicle drones ambling down the street in search of an early lunch, banish the general hubbub of Penn Quarter on a sunny spring day, and imagine what this corner — Seventh Street and Indiana Avenue NW, a block off Pennsylvania — was like 40 years ago.

“Blight,” says Dominick Cardella, who has lived at 641 Indiana Ave. NW since 1972.

Back then, he says, “there was a neighborhood of one: me.”

His closest neighbors were people drawn to the nearby Central Union Mission, where a sign on the roof beckoned, “Come Unto Me.”

But what a location! “The Smithsonian museums in my front yard, the American Art Museum in my back yard,” Dominick says. “And I’m facing the most historic street in the nation.”

Before he bought the three-story, 19th-century building, he rented it — for $400 a month. “The entire building!” he laughs. “That just goes to show you how blighted this entire area was.”

Dominick grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Italian immigrants. He became an engineer specializing in water treatment plants. In 1971, he was in D.C. hoping to get a job with the Environmental Protection Agency when he realized his heart wasn’t really in it. There is nothing exotic about a water treatment plant.

And the exotic is what the kid from Brooklyn had always been drawn to: movies set in the rain forest, books about the jungle, artwork primitive and powerful.

A used furniture dealer he’d met named Warren Malkin said he’d rent Dominick the building. Built in 1817, it’s part of the oldest block of commercial buildings still standing from Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the District. Dominick created a cold-water flat for himself on the top floor, then drove to New York City in his Chevy van and spent all the money he had — $4,500 — filling it with Third World artifacts. He opened the Artifactory, a gallery specializing in the exotic, mainly art from Africa.

The Artifactory looks now as it must have looked then. The wooden floor is rough and unfinished, seeming to settle in places under the weight of display cabinets. Dust motes fall through the slanting sunlight that pours in from the front windows. Everywhere is a profusion of stuff: masks, statues, trinkets, baubles . . . .

There’s a Berber wedding necklace made from disks of amber, house posts from Cameroon, a massive bronze statue depicting a Tikar king’s wife, dolls from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Some items are purely decorative, carved by the thousands to satisfy the tourist market. But some are authentic, once used in rituals and imbued, their creators believed, with a special energy.

“It’s all about the spirit world,” Dominick explains.

I ask whether anything he brought back on one of his yearly buying trips abroad ever gave him a bad vibe.

“Yes, I remember coming across something that for me was so powerful, I didn’t even want to take it out of its plastic sack,” he says. It was a wooden figure from the Republic of the Congo. Dominick sold it. Let its new owner deal with the juju.

After 40 years, Dominick is closing the Artifactory. “It’s just time,” he says. He’s holding on to the building — “I saved it from being torn down,” he says — but by autumn, the African art will be gone, and the first floor will be rented to a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Dominick says he misses the old neighborhood, bums and all. “I liked it, because we didn’t have the Starbucks. We didn’t have the Potbelly. We didn’t have the Au Bon Pain, the Cosi. Remember d.c. space?” he asks, mentioning a long-gone eclectic bar/performance spot a block up Seventh Street. “No way they could get a d.c. space now.”

A woman comes in. She collects cloisonne ginger jars. Dominick says he doesn’t have any, then remembers he has a small cloisonne snuff bottle and pulls it from a case. It isn’t what she’s looking for, but the tiny totem is an excuse to start talking about far-flung parts of the globe. Soon we’re in Marrakesh, then on a tiny tropical island off the coast of Colombia, then off to Morocco, then Peru . . . .

Workaday Washington seems very far away.