Would FBI headquarters in Washington, DC be the best site for the Smithonian’s proposed American Women’s History Museum? Would it be better suited to the new National Museum of the Latin American?
How about the Department of Agriculture Administration Building or the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Annex?
These are just a few of the possibilities currently being considered by federal officials and design consultants working on site selection for the two proposed museums.
In 2020, the US Congress authorized the Smithsonian Institution to begin site selection and planning for museums, asking its board for site recommendations by the end of 2022.
On March 3, Smithsonian officials provided an update to the National Capital Planning Commission and the US Commission of Fine Arts, two commissions that review and approve plans for museums and other major projects in Washington, DC.
Planners said they had considered 26 sites and compiled a shortlist of 14 ‘Tier 1’ properties which they felt were ‘most promising’ and merited further evaluation to determine if they would be suitable for one of the proposed museums. .
All 14 sites are close to the National Mall. They belong to two basic groups, the sites along the Pennsylvania Avenue NW corridor and near L’Enfant Plaza, an area that planners refer to as the city’s “southwest ecodistrict area”.
Planners put the other 12 on a list of “tier two” sites which they believe are less likely to meet the museum’s needs than those in tier one, but were still worth considering and could be feasible for a Smithsonian project in the future. They said a site had recently been moved from level two to level one.
Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore is the architectural firm that works with the Smithsonian to evaluate applicants.
Tier 1 sites include some properties that are already federally owned and some in private hands. They include plots with no buildings, buildings that could be adapted for use as a museum, and buildings that would likely need to be expanded or demolished and replaced.
The list of Tier 1 sites includes:
- Land near the Washington Monument at the northwest corner of Independence Avenue SW and 14andSW Street
- Land north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool
- Banneker Overlook, a sloping site at the end of L’Enfant Drive near G Street SW
- The Sidney R. Yates Federal Building, 201 14andSW Street
- The Jamie L. Whitten Building 1400 Independence Avenue SW, also known as the US Department of Agriculture Administration Building.
- The Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW, previously controlled by the Smithsonian
- The James V. Forrestal Building, 1000 Independence Avenue SW, Department of Energy Headquarters
- The Forrestal Cafeteria, 1000 Independence Avenue, SW
- The Orville Wright Federal Building, 800 Independence Avenue SW
- The Wilbur Wright Federal Building, 600 Independence Avenue, SW
- The Wilbur Cohen Federal Building, 330 Independence Avenue SW
- The U.S. Postal Service Headquarters, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW
- The J. Edgar Hoover Building (FBI headquarters), 935 Pennsylvania Avenue N W.
- The Printed Annex of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 300 14andSW Street
Tier two sites included the former Daniel Webster School; ownership of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; the former property of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the former South Building of the Ministry of the Interior; Place of the Child; the Liberty Loan Building; the Cotton Annex; National Capital Region Headquarters; part of an Internal Revenue Service property; the Ministry of Labour; the former Walter Reed campus and Barry Farms.
In presentations to review groups, some sites attracted more attention than others, although the top-tier rankings were not comprehensive.
The site that caught the most attention was the Historic Arts and Industries Building, a National Historic Landmark designed by Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze and built between 1879 and 1881. Other buildings that were discussed included the Yates Building, the Whitten Building and the Print Annex, the structure was recently upgraded from level two to level one.
Luanne Greene, President of Ayers Saint Gross, said in both presentations that the Arts and Industries building made sense to consider because of its visibility, distinctive design and proximity to the mall, among other factors.
“Suffice it to say, the Arts and Industries Building is an incredible building with a prime location directly on the National Mall,” Greene said during the CNPC presentation. “The Smithsonian controls it, owns it. Therefore, it has a clear availability advantage as a museum site. The AIB is a historical treasure.
But Greene said the Arts and Industries building, with about 250,000 square feet of space, was too small to house either museum’s program unless it was expanded or the museums revise their programs to require less space. She said options for expansion include building a southern addition or excavating the basement to create another underground level – “an expensive but not impossible option”.
Many Level 1 sites contain buildings currently occupied by federal agencies, which should be moved to make way for a museum.
Chief among these is the FBI Headquarters at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, which opened in 1975. Designed by Charles F. Murphy and Associates, the 11-story building regularly appears on lists of least admired buildings. of the national capital.
Under the Obama administration, the United States General Services Administration solicited proposals from developers wishing to move the FBI headquarters to a new site, either in northern Virginia or in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Maryland.
But when Donald Trump became president in 2017, his administration halted planning to move FBI headquarters just as the GSA was about to announce its preferred location. While federal officials said one of the reasons for stopping the project was lack of funding, there was also strong speculation in Washington circles that Trump did not want to see the current site released and possibly redeveloped with a hotel that would compete with the Trump International Hotel. that his family’s business operated nearby at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
With Trump’s absence, the General Services Administration has been asked to resume planning for the move of FBI headquarters, taking advantage of the extensive planning work that has already been completed.
According to Washington Business Journal, a spending bill signed by President Joe Biden this month includes language that reinvigorates the site selection process. The legislation requires the GSA to select a site from three identified finalists before Trump becomes president; plots in Greenbelt or Landover, Maryland, or Springfield, Virginia. The FBI and GSA would then report to Congress, which would decide whether to proceed with construction.
One reason to consider the FBI site, planners said, is that the federal government is working on an initiative to improve Pennsylvania Avenue and make it more conducive to public events and programs, and a museum in the 900 block. would be consistent with this effort.
One of the drawbacks of using the FBI site for a museum, they say, is that the current building would most likely have to be demolished and replaced with a building that met Smithsonian criteria.
Before identifying the sites for consideration, Greene and his associate Doug Satteson outlined some of the criteria the Smithsonian uses to evaluate different sites.
They said representatives from both museums wanted to be near the National Mall, but advocates for the women’s museum indicated a preference for being toward the east end of the National Mall and having views to and from the US Capitol if possible, while advocates of the Latino museum indicated a preference for being more toward the western end of the mall.
Greene said representatives of both museum groups have indicated they would consider occupying an existing structure if the location was “superior”. She said representatives of the Women’s Museum have indicated that they would prefer a new building and, if an existing building is suitable, its history “must be taken into consideration”.
Site evaluation criteria included: proximity to the National Mall; the notoriety of the site; importance of site to constituent groups; visitability and proximity to other Smithsonian museums; ability to maintain key sight and sight lines, acquisition potential; site conditions such as size, accessibility and “architectural expressiveness” and cost factors such as the extent of site preparation.
One difference between this process and previous ones, several commissioners said, is that the Smithsonian is seeking to identify sites for two museums to be created at the same time, not just one. They said the Smithsonian’s decision could be transformational for the selected areas.
“Many of the sites under study will generate a lot of discussion,” said NCPC’s Peter May. “There is this potential to create a new critical mass perhaps in a new location, certainly close to the mall, but also to give some life to some nearby areas that may need a little energy. …I’m very encouraged that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing might be under consideration again because I think it’s a site that has enormous potential.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement in seeing two museums moving at the same time,” added Jennifer Steingasser, NCPC committee member.
During the Fine Arts Commission presentation, panel member Justin Garrett Moore said he hopes planners consider the quantity and quality of land available for outdoor events and programs associated with a museum. , as well as interior spaces. Panel member Peter Cook encouraged Smithsonian representatives to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible in the site selection process, so no one feels left out or caught off guard.
Next steps, according to planners, include additional site assessment and the development of architectural programming to further narrow the number of potential sites and help determine the best options. A nationwide investigation will begin this month and an update from the Smithsonian is expected this summer.
NCPC President Beth White said the information compiled will be useful even beyond the current site selection process.
“I imagine these won’t be the last two museums approved by Congress, so I encourage the Smithsonian to continue its thoughtful analysis,” White said. “Some of these sites may not work this time around, but they could be good candidates for the future.”