Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In the concrete wasteland of L’Enfant Plaza, a new and imposing International Spy Museum hopes to draw crowds and establish a new cultural hub in the District.

There’s no place to hide on the seventh floor of the new International Spy Museum. Measuring 34 feet by 178 feet, this space offers unparalleled views into every corner of the District. Floor-to-ceiling windows arranged in a 180-degree span around the building provide a platform for observing the Washington Monument and the Capitol, the National Cathedral and the Basilica, the Maine Avenue Fish Market and the hills of Anacostia. One month out from the museum’s debut in May, the room is otherwise featureless. 

“We let the skyline do the decorating,” says Erika Owings, an architect and associate at JBG Smith, the developer for the Spy Museum’s new building at L’Enfant Plaza. Owings previously worked as the building’s project manager for Hickok Cole, the D.C. firm that designed the Spy Museum along with London-based Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. 

Such a sweeping view isn’t possible from most D.C. perches. Plenty of sightlines stop short at L’Enfant Plaza, whose drab towers loom over I-395, a hard border between Southwest and the rest of the District. But the Spy Museum’s elevated home in the center of this Brutalist complex lifts it up over the city. That’s one advantage of the museum’s move to L’Enfant Plaza.

The Spy Museum looks as if it were made to be seen from a car screaming down I-395. This view makes its immensity clear in context: It is shaped like an inverted trapezoid brick. It’s the desert sandcrawler from Star Wars. The building has the hype bearing of an arena; it would stand out even if it weren’t located where it is, square in the middle of the city’s most unyielding towers and joyless plaza. At night, the ribbons running up the Spy Museum’s side glow red—these could be any color, pink during October for breast cancer awareness, for example—making for a visual pop amid the dull drone of concrete. 

The new building has gravitas, another plus. It bears the fingerprints of Richard Rogers, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris as well as the Millennium Dome and the Lloyd’s of London building. His principal achievement, first expressed to the astonishment of Paris with the Pompidou in 1977, was to turn buildings inside out, so that their infrastructural and mechanical features serve as the façade. Among the medieval walkways of Le Marais, the exterior escalators and brightly colored tubing of the Pompidou’s exoskeleton are an arresting visual. But the comparisons end there: L’Enfant Plaza is not Le Marais.

When the Spy Museum opens to the public on May 12, the private nonprofit will find out whether it can make good on an all-or-nothing bet. After leaving its home at 800 F Street NW, where it has served as an anchor for Penn Quarter since 2002, and after it failed to relocate to the former Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, the Spy Museum is reopening its doors in one of the least navigable parts of the city. It’s a risky proposition: Can this popular museum bring the crowds from downtown with it? Can it draw tourists by the school bus-load when there’s no Shake Shack next door?

“Mount Vernon Square was a logistical nightmare for [dropping off] a busful of 8th grade students,” said Michael Kruelle, vice president for operations at the Spy Museum, during a tour of the building. The Spy Museum will be better off in L’Enfant Plaza, he argues.

Stakes are even higher for the city. The District is built out; there aren’t cheap former warehouse districts waiting to be repurposed as cultural magnets, like in East Berlin, or disinvested neighborhoods that galleries will ill-advisedly try to colonize, like in Los Angeles. When art institutions close in one part of D.C., they often leave D.C. entirely. With the arrival of Gucci and Tesla downtown, the city has seen an exodus of arts orgs in recent years (although there are still some points of light).

For Southwest D.C., the Spy Museum represents the last best bet to bridge the concrete expanse that divides the National Mall from the new and economically supercharged Wharf. If the Spy Museum succeeds, it will give the city a boost in its improbable efforts to reorient this isolated federal promontory as a cultural district, something the city arguably needs. If the Spy Museum doesn’t survive the move to L’Enfant Plaza, though, the reason will be clear: It’s now hiding in plain sight.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The Spy Museum’s new building is a metaphor for espionage. The 140,000-square-foot museum is configured as a black box tucked behind a veil. That element, the so-called veil, which runs along the building’s western face, is the museum’s master stroke: an exterior curtain of folded metal panels and pleated glass that encloses an exterior stairwell, a Rogers signature. As Winston Churchill once said about Russia, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

The building is a feat of mechanical engineering. Transfer girders on the east side of the building—thick steel rebar in 6-foot-deep concrete—work against uplift under certain conditions, which is the opposite direction the load path usually takes. Translated from engineer speak: The building wants to lean toward its heavier western side, but the architects won’t let it. The entire veil structure, including the lime green exterior staircase, which runs along the western face, is suspended from the top of the building. A series of Y-shaped lateral joints that connect the glass paneling and stairs to the building’s superstructure brace the veil against seismic and wind loads.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“One of the biggest challenges in this space is that everything you’re standing on is hanging from the top of the structure,” says Erin McNamara, an associate at Hickok Cole, referring to the neon staircase inside the veil.

Another building element, a long rectangular glass prism on top of the museum, facilitates the seventh floor’s soaring views. This feature cantilevers out from the building, jutting out 12.5 feet into space on the museum’s north side. This projection required some civic finagling, since D.C. code doesn’t allow such deep protrusions. The planners found an obscure line in D.C.’s zoning code to facilitate the extension, a subsection about “foregone construction.”

“Zoning allows you to have 2 or 3 feet into public space,” says Suzanne Sabatier, senior vice president for JBG Smith. “[Spy Museum founder Milton] Maltz said, ‘Suzy, I hear Shakespeare Theatre has 8 feet. I want at least 15.’” She added, “I got him 12.”

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The Spy Museum is stacked: a skinny prism on top of a black box on top of a glass cube (with three levels of parking underneath). The glassy base at ground level comprises the museum lobby and (expansive) gift shop. Some splashier artifacts from the original Spy Museum are now housed in the atrium. There’s the Aston Martin DB5 that James Bond drove in Goldfinger (or the car used for the movie’s press tour, anyway). There’s a replica of David Bushnell’s Revolutionary War–era Turtle, the first submersible vessel, designed to attach explosives to the underside of British ships (which never worked). Hanging over the entrance area is an Amber drone, the forerunner for the Predator, and a prelude for the drumbeat of military propaganda to follow. The loveliest touch in the lobby might be the terrazzo gradient floor, which looks like peppermint bark. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

(Note to readers: Spy Museum founder Milton Maltz and new executive director Chris Costa declined multiple requests for interviews. The museum initially agreed to a press tour, but when this reporter couldn’t attend on a given date, the museum would not offer an alternative. To get an advance look, City Paper joined a public tour arranged by the Urban Land Institute. It wasn’t a clandestine mission: This writer registered as press and clearly identified himself as such during interviews.)

The most sophisticated part of the Spy Museum’s new $162 million building is outside the facility. Some visitors, namely parents and school chaperones, will wish they’d stayed there. The three exhibit floors of the museum are all condensed within the building’s black box, packed with frenetic, screen-forward infotainment made to occupy the museum’s target audience of overstimulated middle schoolers.

“I can be an architect for another 50 years and I guarantee I will never have another client that asks, ‘What about the ninjas rappelling from the ceiling? Can we make the ninjas block the exit signs?’” says Bryan Chun, senior associate for Hickok Cole and the senior project architect, on the unique challenges associated with Spy. That’s what everyone calls it: Spy.

The covert operations gallery wasn’t open during the tour, alas. Other exhibits are straightforward: lipstick pistols and other nifty Cold War gizmos; vignettes about historical figures, from Mata Hari to Nikita Khrushchev; way too many video screens; and a lock on engagement. Guests will be able to grab an undercover mission card that they can use to unlock their secret identity, codeword, and mission status at various terminals for a live-action experience. With low lighting but flashy features, the museum galleries read like a laser tag arena. The Spy Museum is excessively boy: Even before the first MAGA bucket hat- wearing school group walks through the front door, it’s easy to taste the Axe Body Spray in the air.

Predictably, for an institution that venerates nation-state spycraft, a heavy dose of imperialism permeates the Spy Museum, too. “Washington did not beat us MILITARILY. He simply OUTSPIED us,” reads a quip from a British commander along one wall. That’s a misquote, according to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, but no matter. There’s stronger stuff than patriotic Founding Father-ism on display. A fearmongering display about terrorism subdivides into three camps: “Terror Where We PLAY,” “Terror Where We WORK,” and “Terror Where We LIVE.” A section on torture asks whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” really work (with guiding illustrations to explain waterboarding). The museum’s soft answer hearkens back to the moral ambiguity of the Bush administration: “It depends on who you ask.”

The appeal to state authority and military projection might have culminated in a commanding view of the seat of power from the seventh floor (or the rooftop space above it). But eighth graders will not be dabbing over Washington: This space, with its viewshed jutting out toward the National Mall, is reserved exclusively for rentals. According to Kruelle, booking the entire event space will cost $20,000. The Spy Museum expects event revenue to make up 15 percent of its budget.

“At most other museums, you’re having [private events] in exhibit halls,” Kruelle said during the tour. “We can do both.”

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

During a panel session after the tour, a woman in the audience raised a critical question. L’Enfant Plaza is a nightmare to navigate. How are people supposed to find the museum from the Metro?

“Yes, that is a great question,” said Steve Moore, executive director for the Southwest Business Improvement District. Then, without a beat: “Are there any other questions?”

L’Enfant Plaza is a product of urban renewal, a mid-century federal redevelopment push that cut deep into African-American communities. In the late 1940s, Congress established the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency to clear out areas for redevelopment and invested the National Capital Planning Commission with the authority to determine where to focus urban renewal. This project led to the broad destruction of thousands of Victorian townhomes, churches, and other structures in the mostly black neighborhoods of Southwest—which were further cut off from the city with the construction of I-395.

When it opened in 1968, L’Enfant Plaza was greeted as a masterpiece of urban design. I.M. Pei, who designed its master plan, is considered among the greatest architects alive today. The plaza’s signature is a below-grade shopping mall, the Promenade, which connects the four original towers. Araldo Cossutta, a Pei associate who also designed a Brutalist church in downtown D.C. that was demolished in 2014, made the North and South Buildings; Vlastimil Koubek designed East and West, while Edwin F. Schnedl gave us the mall and food court.

Brutalism made better architects than planners, it turns out. Any enthusiasm for L’Enfant Plaza is long since gone. The place is a formidable obstacle for the principles of walkability and streetscape access—theories popular with planners today and developed in no small part as a response to urban renewal. Wayfinding from L’Enfant Plaza Metro station is hopeless. Until recent years, efforts to improve L’Enfant Plaza have stalled or failed.

“I came to Washington as a student of architecture on a scholarship in 1964,” the late architect Bing Thom, who redesigned Arena Stage, told City Paper back in 2012. “[What I saw at L’Enfant Plaza] changed my life, because I took one look out there and I said, ‘This can’t be the way to build cities.’”

Moore is well aware of the problem. He says that the SW BID is currently working with Portland, a London-based design team commissioned by the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, to improve wayfinding from station exits that currently leave Metro riders feeling marooned. Even before now, Moore was looking for fixes on a smaller scale. For example, the SW BID reached out to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden before it opened its blockbuster Yayoi Kusama show; they collaborated to outline the path from the Metro station to the museum in the artist’s signature polka dots.

“All of that access from the National Mall down to the waterfront—10th, 7th, and 4th streets—really has to be rethought,” Moore says. “And people have to change their minds about how they’re going to get to the Wharf, the National Mall, and Spy, ultimately. It doesn’t seem to me like it’s ever going to be convenient to drive there.”

About two months ago, Moore says, he convened a lunch for leaders in Southwest who had never, to his knowledge, come together as neighbors. Among the guests at this hospitality roundtable were Gus Casely-Hayford, the new director for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art; Donna Westmoreland, the chief operating officer of I.M.P., which manages The Anthem; and luminaries from the Hirshhorn, Museum of the Bible, and Arena Stage, plus representatives from Southwest hotels and restaurants.

“Any one of them would be a TED talk,” Moore says. “They never sat around the table ever to talk to each other.”

The National Capital Planning Commission is also invested in improving L’Enfant Plaza (and reversing its original sin, the destruction of Southwest). In 2011, the Commission introduced a comprehensive plan known as the Southwest Ecodistrict, whose framework called for remaking 10th Street SW as a pedestrian corridor that will thread the National Mall to the Waterfront, via a revived  Benjamin Banneker Park. The program calls for transforming the 110-acre concrete federal district into a sustainable cultural destination.

Between the new Wharf development and the National Mall, there finally may be pressure to try something new with L’Enfant Plaza. But the Great Recession gummed up some plans for change, while critics say that authorities have dragged their heels. L’Enfant Plaza falls within a part of the capital city where, under federal law, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has a lot of say over what private construction projects get built. The Shipstead-Luce Act offers this area the strongest protections that preservationists can muster.

“JBG has owned L’Enfant since 2003,” Sabatier says, and in that time, the developer has conducted significant renovations of existing towers. “Until 2015, we were not able to get anything entitled to build there. Under the Shipstead-Luce Act, this area’s under the CFA approval process. We came and approached them with iterations and iterations of massive office buildings that we wanted to build, and they were like, no freaking way.”

Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, can’t recall his agency ever rejecting any plan from JBG Smith for L’Enfant Plaza. He can rattle off a handful of projects proposed for the area over the last decade or so, including a plan for the National Children’s Museum designed by César Pelli that never materialized. The Spy Museum never faced any serious impediments, he says, although the Commission pushed back on the size and volume of certain features.

“We gave them a hard time, but we thought that working with the Rogers people was very gratifying,” Luebke says. “You could have these conversations about aesthetic issues very productively.”

What moved the needle for the Spy Museum, its planners say, was Rogers himself. His firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, led the design for another JBG Smith project that joined two office buildings (at 300 New Jersey Ave. NW and 51 Louisiana Ave. NW) under a glass atrium supported by a bright yellow tree-like structure. The firm once proposed an office building whose structural systems would be legible from the outside in the space now occupied by the Eaton Hotel.

While Rogers wasn’t directly involved in the Spy Museum’s design (that was another partner, Ivan Harbour), the architect personally delivered the presentation before the CFA. And even though he made a few flubs—describing exterior escalators when he meant stairs, for example, according to architects present—his design won over the commission.

“[Rogers] developed the Pompidou Centre when I was still in diapers. This guy is a personal hero,” Chun says. “But one thing to clarify: They were the designers. We were the architects. They can say things we can’t.”

He adds, “It’s not what he said. It’s who said it, and how he said it.”

Luebke doesn’t necessarily disagree. “It’s possible that I’ve conveniently forgotten some dark episode when the commission said no [to JBG], but I’m struggling,” he says. “We considered it to be a very successful review process.”

In any event, JBG Smith got the go-ahead to proceed with the Spy Museum as well as a new office building at 500 L’Enfant Plaza. The Urban Institute, a policy think tank and the office building’s anchor tenant, opened up shop there in March. Taken together, these projects represent the biggest changes to the site in decades—maybe since its opening. With the Wharf thriving and green shoots sprouting in L’Enfant Plaza, Moore says that Southwest is shaping up.

“That [Southwest Ecodistrict] plan would have sat on the shelf for the rest of our lives if Spy hadn’t moved to 10th Street,” Moore says.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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By the time the National Museum of Crime & Punishment closed its doors in Penn Quarter in September 2015, the museum was still garnering hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The operation remained profitable, according to Janine Vaccarello, the chief operating officer of the museum (which has since reopened under a new name in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee). The Crime Museum didn’t close its doors without a fight.

“I was trying to save us in D.C.,” Vaccarello says. “I was heartbroken.”

The Crime Museum was paying more than $1 million to rent its 28,000-square-foot space in Penn Quarter. But the landlord wanted more. While legal troubles reported by Washingtonian at the time may have complicated the matter, Vaccarello says the only problem was the lease. Scrambling for a solution, she found a sponsor who would boost their rent in exchange for space in the museum building—but to no avail.   

“I actually said to [the landlord], “How much do you want? What if I give you $2 million a year?’” Vaccarello says. “They came back two weeks later and said, ‘We’re going to execute the terms of our lease.’”

In the early 2000s, as D.C. rebounded from decades of financial distress, private nonprofit museums proliferated downtown. The Newseum, Crime Museum, and Spy Museum added a kitsch factor to a Gallery Place anchored by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Now, those private museums are gone—or on their way out.

Only two months after the National Law Enforcement Museum opened in Judiciary Square last October, the museum was looking at defaulting on some of its debt, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The cop museum anticipated a lineup of 420,000 visitors per year, but so far, it’s been a bust: Just 15,000 people showed up over its first three months. Likewise, the Newseum struggled for years to live up to its marquee facility at the border between Penn Quarter and the Mall. In January, the museum gave up the ghost, announcing the sale of its building to Johns Hopkins University. 

In this context, the Spy Museum stands out as a success story. “Spy exceeded all expectations,” Kruelle says, pulling in more than 600,000 visitors a year. (Its 2018 attendance was 571,000, down from a 10-year average of 619,200.) By 2013, the museum started looking for a new home. Plans to occupy the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square fell apart when the expansion—which would have introduced glass-enclosed wings around the historic building, plus several levels below grade—failed to pass muster with the city’s historic preservation guard.

Smaller cultural organizations have followed the exodus out of downtown. The Goethe-Institut Washington held its ground at 7th and I streets NW for nearly 20 years before it left for Farragut West in 2015. “Unfortunately, the owner of our current building no longer wanted to offer us a reasonable rate for renting the space,” Norma Broadwater, then a staffer at Goethe, told City Paper at the time.

“We know the challenges more than anybody, at one point having two mortgages in the city,” says Kristi Maiselman, the executive director of CulturalDC, a nonprofit that owns the Source Theatre on 14th Street NW. For more than a decade, CulturalDC ran a black-box stage and an art gallery, Flashpoint, as well as its offices, from a space on G Street NW, across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The arts incubator even bought the space outright, at a below-market rate, in 2013. But just 3 years later, the organization sold to a developer. 

“The reality is, it was tough to maintain an affordable space for artists and organizations and be able to pay the mortgage,” Maiselman says. “Even a below-market mortgage, it’s tough. It’s downtown.” She adds, “There’s not enough money in the city to help offset any of those costs.”

What the Spy Museum and others give up by leaving downtown is ample foot traffic. Downtown museums also benefited from a clustering effect: Having more of them in one place made them all more viable. This factor was critical, since the Newseum, Crime Museum, and Spy Museum all charged high prices for admission. Despite the many free museums along the National Mall, private museums survived or thrived downtown, because downtown serves as its own destination. There’s no Shake Shack on the Mall.

For its part, Maiselman says that CulturalDC has more than made up for the loss of its brick-and-mortar space with its Mobile Art Gallery, a fully functioning 40-foot shipping container that it uses to host temporary exhibits. By bringing art directly to different neighborhoods and corridors, the Mobile Art Gallery racked up more than 45,000 visits in its first year, Maiselman says; in the 13 years that CulturalDC operated Flashpoint, she doubts it attracted 45,000 visitors total.

Downtown’s not quite finished yet. The National Children’s Museum will finally re-emerge in November inside the Ronald Reagan Building in Federal Triangle. Next year, a museum of linguistics called Planet Word aims to open in the long-shuttered Franklin School. And the National Museum of Women in the Arts did numbers in 2018, thanks to record attendance for a couture show by the fashion house Rodarte. Of downtown’s eight theaters, all but the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall had a better-than-average year in attendance, according to a report from the Downtown Business Improvement District.

Moore says that new developments in Southwest stand to offset any loss in visibility they might suffer from leaving downtown. The Anthem produces more than 120 concerts and shows a year, making Maine Avenue in Southwest one of the biggest pickup and dropoff zones in the city, he says. He notes that the free neighborhood shuttle already conveys more than 40,000 people a month. The Spy Museum adds another destination to the mix. With ample space for tour buses and school convoys to hover, there should be no shortage of derpy Fortnite dances on the plaza.

“It all works together to give that L’Enfant Promenade a real shot in the arm,” Luebke says.

Another new player in Southwest, the Museum of the Bible, recorded more than half a million visits in its first six months since opening at 4th and D streets SW in 2017. It’s hard to say what success looks like for a museum with a holy writ, especially since its size and scope put it in a category all its own: The 430,000-square-foot building cost $500 million to build. While scandal may have harmed the Bible Museum’s reputation—five of its purported Dead Sea Scroll artifacts were revealed to be forgeries in October—its attendance has not slowed.

But for local residents, L’Enfant Plaza is still uncharted territory. JBG Smith has an incentive to get the Promenade piece right, since the developer also represents another site plagued by an underground mall: Crystal City, where Amazon’s arrival is imminent. Maltz, the Spy guy, has pledged to invest in the restoration of Benjamin Banneker Park, a neglected modernist park and fountain. And ARTECHOUSE, a gallery for tech-y art on Maryland Avenue SW, has already put Southwest on the map for the influencer set. The Wharf, the Mall, the Southwest Ecodistrict—all the components are falling into place.

The Spy Museum is several things: An immersive intelligence whitewash enclosed within a baronial engineering triumph. A gala platform supported by a romper room. 

For Southwest, though, Spy might be the final piece to make sense of the puzzle, Moore says. 

“This has thrown this little quadrant of the city way, way up, in terms of what it is as a walkable, maybe national destination for—in aggregate—a set of cultural destinations.”