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Fighting to save the last of the past

Development threatens remainder of D.C.’s arts district

(Published May 31, 1999)


Staff Writer

In a city full of real estate Goliaths, they don’t come much bigger than the Archdiocese of Washington and its law firm — Wilkes, Artis, Hendrick, and Lane, a firm with a reputation for being able to wriggle development projects out of zoning requirements to the chagrin of neighborhood activists who try to stop them.

But in a small remaining sliver of the city’s "old downtown," a group of resident artists has taken up their slings and begun gathering stones.

It’s supposed to be the District’s official downtown "arts district." But the 900 block of F Street NW is where the last working artists of a once-thriving community have their studios. They are facing expulsion from their studios if the Catholic Church is allowed to raze the buildings they work in to make room for another office development.

The church is planning to build an 11-story office building half a block long on the last full block of what was the turn-of-the-century business district in downtown Washington. The plan would keep only the facades of a handful of the buildings and would demolish the rest of the buildings in order to build a steel-and-glass office building.

"Every other city has seen the value of putting its artists downtown and having them revitalize the area," said Michael Berman, who heads the Downtown Artists Coalition.

The church shouldn’t be allowed to build its office building, he said, because the area lies in the downtown arts district created in 1972 to preserve and encourage the arts community in the neighborhood. If the church is allowed to build the offices "it would be the death of (a living) downtown," Berman said.

Most of the buildings on the block were built in the late 1800s and became popular among artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s as affordable downtown studio space. Buildings like the Victor, the Atlas and the LeDroit as well as many of the smaller buildings in the area were converted into artists’ space for hundreds of painters, photographers, sculptors and other artists.

The church plans to renovate Carroll Hall, which is next to St. Patrick’s Church, and turn the building into the area headquarters for Catholic Charities. The church would then turn half of the 900 block of F Street NW into an 11-story office building that would be leased in order to pay for letting Catholic Charities occupy Carroll Hall rent-free.

Representatives of the archdiocese testified at a hearing before the mayor’s agent on historic preservation May 25 that they should get a special-merit exception to the zoning laws, allowing them to build the office complex because of the social services Catholic Charities would bring to the area. They testified the church would still convert Carroll Hall even if they were not allowed to build the office complex.

The Washington Stage Guild, which had used the 95-year-old Carroll Hall as its stage, dropped its opposition to the project when the John Akridge Companies, the project developer, committed to pay $200,000 for the guild’s relocation. Tom Wilber, senior vice president of the company, testified that a request from the 15 artists for a similar amount of money for relocation went unanswered by him.

Berman has been working out of his studio at 931½ F St. NW for the past 10 years. This is not the first time he has had to fight development projects. He also has been involved in a 2½ year fight to preserve Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. He got involved with that fight because that is one of the locations where he sells his paintings.

"I don’t choose to be an activist, but they’re making it impossible for me to make my livelihood," Berman said.

Stuart Gosswein has been painting in his studio for three years. He said his business has greatly improved since he moved his studio from upper Connecticut Avenue to the arts district.

"I could never get anyone up there to look at my paintings," Gosswein said. "Here, I can. It’s made a big difference being downtown."

The artists have been joined by the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City in opposing the project.

A decision from the mayor’s agent on the special merit of the project is expected sometime this month.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator