An African-American Museum Will Rise. But Where?

Posted March 14, 2005 at 6:44pm

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is trying hard to keep an open mind.

Really.

He looks up at the elegant, High Victorian brick facade of the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall and knits his brow. “It’s a lovely building,” he says. “It’s a great location, without a doubt.”

“But” — and there is that crucial but — “is it conducive” to a modern museum? “I wouldn’t want to tear this down,” he continues. “It’s part of the history of the Mall.” Besides, he adds, as a historic landmark, that would be prohibited.

For Lewis, it’s just part of a nagging conundrum: Where should a new National Museum of African American History and Culture be built?

The museum’s concept seems clear enough to Lewis, who as a young man endured beatings and even suffered a concussion while marching for voting rights for blacks. It needs to personify the African-American experience. But the location is a different matter.

The museum’s authorizing legislation includes four sites for consideration. One is the Arts and Industries Building, which is currently closed for renovations. A second is a parcel of empty park space directly northeast of the Washington Monument. A third is the current site of the Liberty Loan Building on 14th Street Southwest. And the fourth is an eight-acre perch overlooking the Southwest waterfront at the end of the L’Enfant Promenade.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents is expected to select a site from this list by early next year, after it receives the results of a year-long site-evaluation study by two engineering firms, and after it consults with a variety of entities, including the National Capital Planning Commission and five Congressional committees.

Lewis — who has worked for years to see the museum realized and whose House Web site home page prominently features a link to the museum — will also be consulted.

Still, if Lewis had his druthers, he’d have preferred a trapezoidal slice of land at the foot of the Senate side of the Capitol. A presidential commission charged with crafting an action plan for the museum even recommended it as the museum’s preferred location in early 2003. But politics has a way of scuttling such best-laid plans, and, ultimately, Lewis decided it was more important to get the legislation approved than to deal with the ongoing “hassle” and “stalemate,” which was expected due to some entrenched Congressional opposition to building a museum on Capitol grounds.

So Lewis dropped the site from his legislation, and the bill was signed into law by President Bush in December 2003. “It was very difficult because it’s on like the front lawn of the Capitol,” he says. “But you know you never give up, you never lose hope.”

Now, on a crisp March day when Lewis has come “to see and get a feel for” the four potential locations, he outlines a clear preference: “I think it would have to be a new building,” he says. “They’ve got to let some architect or artist just be free.”

He adds, “I’m not going to be quick to veto anything. I want to stay open and keep all options open and see what the design team and the Board of Regents” say.

On the Hunt

Just before noon on a recent Thursday, Lewis boards the sleek black Volkswagen Touareg driven by his chief of staff, Michael Collins, and sets out down Independence Avenue.

He’s already been up for nearly eight hours, but after a morning workout regimen that included a spell on the treadmill and some weightlifting, the 65-year-old civil rights hero “feels good.” The ever-courtly Lewis is smartly dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, gray shirt, striped tie and Martin Luther King Jr. postage-stamp cufflinks.

After years of false starts and Congressional opposition, Lewis’ beloved museum is finally on its way to becoming a reality.

In January, he and the primary Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), interviewed the likely future director of the museum. (The Smithsonian, he says, is expected to announce the hiring by the end of the month.)

Moreover, the Smithsonian recently met with him and other Congressional Black Caucus members to discuss the make-up of staff, among other issues. Most encouragingly, perhaps, Bush has said he supports the idea of a Mall location for the museum.

“That should carry a tremendous amount of weight,” says Lewis, adding that if the museum is not “on the Mall” it should be “as close to the Mall as possible.”

The second stop on Lewis’ tour, the old Liberty Loan Building on 14th Street Southwest, doesn’t exactly fit this bill, although that’s not readily apparent at first.

Lewis peers out the window at the Liberty Loan building, or at least what he thinks is it — a red structure adjacent to the Holocaust Museum. Its “foot traffic,” exemplified by a pack of teenagers now heading in that direction, would likely bring in plenty of visitors, he says.

Collins misses the turn and is forced to take a circuitous route back to the building. A few minutes later, he pulls up again. Lewis heads past a Smokey Bear cutout and into the lobby of what is looking less and less like the site in question.

“You are not the Liberty Loan Building, are you?” he asks. No, says a perky woman at the front desk. It’s the headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service, named for the late Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.).

“Do you have a cellphone with you?” she asks. “Maybe you can call and get an address.”

But Lewis is already out the door. And he’s not entirely sure that he’s wrong. “I think this is it,” he says. A second look at the map, however, convinces him it’s not. “Even my former staff has always said that this was the building,” he says. (He later recalls that the Yates building had been talked about but didn’t make it into the legislation.)

He and Collins continue down 14th Street Southwest. They turn off in front of an alley sandwiched between the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and what appears to be another nondescript Treasury Department building — the final two structures before 14th Street merges into busy Interstate 395.

Collins is beginning to think that maybe the Liberty Loan building is a site, not an actual building. The police officer guarding the alley entrance says he’s never heard of the Liberty Loan Building either.

At the exit of the alley, however, another officer informs them they actually just passed it. He points to the adjacent L-shaped building, currently home to the Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service.

A few minutes later, Lewis heads into the Liberty Loan Building’s cramped lobby and scans its rather lackluster foyer. A large metal detector dominates the entryway. There is a black history banner hanging overhead, but even so, Lewis can’t easily picture a museum here.

“It’s for the [Smithsonian] people to decide, but I cannot imagine the space unless they tear it down and rebuild it. But even here I think there’s some problems,” he says. He notes the bustling commuter traffic on 14th Street, as well as a parking lot beyond. (For the record, the presidential commission suggested the site as a possibility only if the building itself is torn down.)

Still, despite his reservations, Lewis patiently allows himself to be led up to the fifth floor by Tracy Young, a physical security specialist who, after hearing Lewis is a Congressman, lets it be known that his aunt is a longtime staffer for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Lewis wants to know more about the building and quizzes Young as to its square footage, how many employees it houses and whether it’s been renovated before.

Young is eager to show Lewis around. He’s particularly keen for Lewis see the “great view” of the Jefferson Memorial to the southwest of the building.

“That might be an added attraction,” Lewis concedes, although his rather slumped shoulders suggest otherwise.

As Lewis scans the Tidal Basin view, the FMS commissioner emerges from his office to shake his hand.

“If you were here a month later it’d be …” the commissioner begins.

“Very beautiful,” Lewis chimes in, noting the impending bloom of the cherry trees. “I know it would be.”

Young asks him if he wants to see more.

No, this is fine, Lewis says. On the way out, he worries about the cost of demolishing the building, about its “historic” nature and about its place in the Washington landscape. The view is nice, but not enough to make him a fan.

“You didn’t miss anything, Michael,” he says when he returns to Collins’ waiting car.

Striking Gold

There’s a soccer game in full swing when Lewis arrives at an empty park-like expanse bordered by benches and dotted with a few leafless trees. The site is adjacent to the Washington Monument between 14th and 15th streets Northwest and Constitution and Madison avenues.

He clearly likes what he sees.

“Of all the places yet, this would be the best,” he says, pointing to its proximity to the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument. Especially important, he adds, it’s “a short walk” to the Lincoln Memorial. On warmer evenings, Lewis often strolls down to the Lincoln Memorial, the site of so many momentous civil rights gatherings.

Lewis worries, however, that there may be some underground concerns associated with the site, as there were with the Capitol location that was struck from his bill.

The final stop on their itinerary takes Lewis and Collins back toward the Southwest waterfront. En route, Lewis reminisces about their tenure together.

“How many years too long Michael?” he asks.

“Never too long,” assures Collins.

“No, just go ahead and say it,” urges Lewis.

“Every minute, every hour is precious,” Collins deadpans.

Lewis is not convinced. “You can say it. … I won’t hold it against you.”

By the time Collins pulls off the road just below the overlook site at the foot of the L’Enfant Promenade, however, Lewis’ attention returns to the task at hand.

Although he believes that District officials may favor this site as a means to spur development along the Southwest waterfront, Lewis has doubts. Not only is the site the farthest from the Mall and relatively isolated, but it’s just across the street from a smattering of seafood restaurants and fish shops.

“When it’s very, very warm, coming across the 14th Street Bridge, you know, you can smell all of the seafood — on your way to the museum of history and culture.”

He doesn’t get out of the car. Just stares, speechless.

“This isn’t much,” Lewis says after a moment’s silence, glancing at the grassy knoll leading up to the promenade.

“You’d be amazed what they can do with it,” Collins says optimistically.

“It’d be a squeeze, I think,” says Lewis.

And with that, they are off. There’s a 1:15 p.m. House vote that Lewis needs to make.

As Collins’ Touareg rolls back up Independence Avenue toward the Cannon House Office Building, Lewis says he needs time “to digest” the sites.

He glances back out the window as the curvilinear form of the National Museum of the American Indian flashes by.

“See, the Native American museum is so beautiful,” he says with just a hint of wistfullness.

Is he envious? The museum, after all, now inhabits what was the last Mall site specifically slated for construction.

Not at all, he says.

“I’m happy to see it.”