Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

For more than a year, David Palmer volunteered to spend every Wednesday and some weekends as a guide, showing visitors around the City Museum of Washington, D.C. To Palmer, “it was a first-rate museum,” he says.

Not that many people noticed. “It was a very poorly attended museum, I’ll give you that,” he says. “I was very disappointed, of course, by the fact we had nobody there half the time.” When that happened, Palmer, 69, had to find something else to do: “If there was nobody there, I’d tell the people at the desk, ‘I’ll be up in the library.’”

The 43-year District resident wound up spending a good amount of time in that library. He reread Constance McLaughlin Green’s The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Other times, he flipped through binders of decades-old photographs, searching for a snapshot of the former Safeway at 14th and U Streets NW, where he worked way back in the ’60s. “I’m still looking,” he says.

Every half-hour or so, Palmer would return to the front desk. Usually, at some point, he says, “we had at least one or two people.”

When it opened in May 2003, the City Museum was hailed by its creators as “A New Symbol of Civic Pride.” And District officials expounded on its importance. “[T]his magnificent building will house the history of the great people who built this city and have contributed to the rich history of our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Anthony A. Williams in a written statement.

D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton chimed in with some boosterism of her own: “The District of Columbia has played a pivotal role in our national history and has fascinating, largely undiscovered stories to tell,” she said. “Our new City Museum finally provides us with a place to celebrate that history and tell these stories to residents and visitors.”

If only more of those residents and visitors had shown up. On Nov. 28, the hallowed museum was shuttered, suffering from sluggish attendance and an attendant cash shortfall. City officials had given the museum’s operator a 99-year lease; they hadn’t foreseen a 19-month collapse. Norton, for one, called the closure “unthinkable.”

Not if you know your D.C. history. The implosion of the City Museum is unthinkable only in the sense that other grand municipal failures were unthinkable. Just go back a couple of centuries. In the 1820s, the capital’s éminences grises figured they could turn the Potomac into a trading corridor rivaling the Hudson. The result was the C&O Canal, one hell of a mosquito breeding ground and one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of infrastructure.

In 1871, a new territorial government led by Alexander “Boss” Shepherd embarked on an even bigger boondoggle—an astronomical $20 million public-works project to modernize the District’s mostly dirt streets and remedy the total lack of a sewer system. It wound up bankrupting the city.

Modern times have furnished yet more illustrious examples. D.C. got something called “home rule” in 1973, a setup that provided locals with the right to elect municipal leaders but not federal ones—in other words, just enough progress to thwart campaigns for real progress. Subsequent drives for greater citizenship—in 1985, 1993, and 2000—have been blowouts, with the status-quo squad stomping all over well-intentioned D.C. statehood activists.

Other failures of note include the cursed Washington Capitals’ sweeping defeat in the 1998 Stanley Cup finals. Our snakebitten bid to host the 2012 Olympics. And, of course, the seemingly biannual plans to revive communities around the Anacostia River, a body of water that puts cement boots on mayoral planning documents.

The City Museum represents an even more momentous failure than the whoppers preceding it. Via this two-story beaux-arts institution, the District offered its belief that this very history—one of prosaic failure and incompetence—could actually compete with the compelling narratives being told in nearby museums. And our story came with an entry fee to boot.

So it was Boss Shepherd for $5 squaring off against free dinosaurs.

Palmer ended up on the wrong side of that competition. During his slowest shift, he says, the museum had just seven or eight visitors. That averages out to about two guests per hour throughout his 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. workday. There were more people working in the museum.

For the few folks who did turn out, the biggest draw, at least in Palmer’s opinion, was an exhibition on the main level called Washington Perspectives, which featured a backlit aerial map of the entire city—pieced together from photographs taken in 1999 from about 7,000 feet above—that spanned the floor. “Everybody loved that map,” he says. “Some people told me they could see their cars.” The main level also included exhibitions on the history of the city’s Mount Vernon Square and Chinatown neighborhoods. There was also a theater, which screened a 23-minute introductory film featuring photos of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that, through the wonders of animation, appeared to speak.

Upstairs, there was a whole room full of maps and another room outlining the development of the National World War II Memorial. Of course, you could walk down to the National Mall and see the real “monument to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people to the common defense of the nation and to the broader causes of peace and freedom from tyranny throughout the world”—for free.

Who ever thought that people would actually pay up to see this stuff? Volunteer Palmer, an avid civic-history buff, once figured that lots of people would find it interesting enough. So did Barbara Franco, former president and CEO of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which launched and managed the museum in the first place. And so did PKF Consulting, which concluded in a 2001 study that “there is sufficient market demand, as well as sufficient projected revenue streams to cover expenses….”

All were sufficiently wrong.

The museum had been a long-standing pipe dream for the historical society. For decades, the nonprofit group, founded in 1894, had collected “the scattered and rapidly disappearing records of events and individuals prominent in the history of the city and District,” according to its Web site.

But where to put them? Prior to the City Museum’s opening, the group made do with the late brewer Christian Heurich’s four-story mansion in Dupont Circle. But eventually, the society and its burgeoning collection of D.C. records, relics, and other junk outgrew that space. And so the campaign for an honest-to-goodness museum began. But first, the project needed funding. In 1998, the society went straight for Uncle Sam’s wallet, asking Congress for a handout. The following year, Congress came through, disbursing $2 million. Under one condition: the D.C. government would also have to chip in, by leasing out its historic Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square for the next 99 years at the rock-bottom price of $1 per year. Later that same year, Williams made the deal official.

So the society had found some seed money and a cheap new space for all its stuff.

To find out how many people would be interested in wandering through two centuries of D.C. history, the group turned to PKF, a company with an international presence, including a homey D.C.-area office in Alexandria.

To PKF, making these kinds of projections is serious business—“perhaps the most important aspect of sound decision-making,” according to the company’s Web site. And the firm is clearly proud of its track record in this area. “PKF Consulting sets the standard for market and financial feasibility studies,” the site boasts. “For decades, owners, investors, operators, and lenders have looked to us to provide accurate, insightful analyses, whether their concerns were a new project, the renovation or repositioning of an existing asset, or the purchase of an operating property.”

PKF’s specialty is hotels.

Presently, on that Web site, PKF cites numerous studies as examples of its “accurate, insightful analyses,” including an evaluation of the potential market for a proposed hotel built smack on top of a light-rail station in Jamaica, N.Y., and an economic-impact analysis finding that Los Angeles gained more than $147 million from hosting the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

But nowhere on the list is any mention of PKF’s prospectus for D.C.’s City Museum. An official from the company declined to comment on the museum study, noting, “It’s our policy not to.”

However, the company did issue a prescient comment on the study at the time it was released: “Since the estimated operating results are based on estimates and assumptions, which are subject to uncertainty and variation, we do not represent them as results that will actually be achieved,” read a letter that prefaced the study.

Good thing, too: On the basis of a number of factors—including building capacity, planned marketing strategies, and general D.C. tourism trends—PKF projected that “the estimated attendance for the proposed City Museum in a representative year is estimated to be approximately 450,000 annual visitors.”

That projection was off by about 400,000. According to the study, the influx at the gate would be so great that the museum could count on revenues from admission charges plus retail and concession sales for nearly 50 percent of its overall income.

And why not 450,000? Other D.C. museums draw two, three, four—up to 20 times that. That’s peanuts compared with the average 9.4 million annual visitors to Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum between 1997 and 1999, as the report notes. Or the more than 6 million drawn each year to the National Museum of Natural History over the same period. In fact, the report notes, 450,000 is only “between 1 and 2 percent of the total number of annual visitors” to D.C.’s primary metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Even so, it would have taken a whole bunch of civic-minded residents to hit 450,000—one visit each year from 78.7 percent of the District’s 572,059-strong populace, in fact, according to 2000 census figures.

Civic-history buffs would have had to be a lot more committed than sports fans, that’s for sure. To hit 450,000, the museum would have needed more than twice the average annual turnout of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (198,960 from 1997 through 1999).

A Short History of the City Museum’s Short History

July 14, 1999

Mayor Anthony A. Williams announces the creation of the City Museum of Washington, D.C., in the historic Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, following a $2 million appropriation from Congress.

Sept. 11, 2001

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., postpones the groundbreaking ceremony following terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Oct. 15, 2001

The Historical Society holds its groundbreaking ceremony. PKF Consulting releases a study estimating “approximately 450,000 annual visitors” to the City Museum.

May 5, 2003

Museum marketing consultants Nasuti & Hinkle Creative Thinking launch new ads featuring a shovel used in Metro’s 1969 groundbreaking.

May 15, 2003

The Historical Society holds a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony at the City Museum. Its HVAC system malfunctions. A cloud of dust covers guest speaker and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Oct. 24, 2003

The Washington City Paper reports that museum is “on pace to draw barely 50,000 patrons” in first year.

December 2003

Historical Society President and CEO Barbara Franco resigns.

Oct. 7, 2004

The Historical Society board of trustees announces its “exciting changes”: The museum’s exhibitions will close on April 18, 2005.

Oct. 9, 2004

The Washington Post reports that the museum drew only 36,536 paying patrons through August.

Nov. 9, 2004

The board of trustees moves up the museum’s closing date to Nov. 28, 2004.

Nov. 28, 2004

Exhibitions are closed to the public.

December 2004

The City Museum’s building and grounds are still available for rent.

So how was this sober history museum to compete with pro sports? Easily, according to PKF: Why, just think of the thousands upon thousands of bored history buffs stuck at the World of Wheels auto show, the Golden Scissors Awards hairstylist competition, and the Association of Gaming Professionals’ Xbox tournament right across the street at the brand-spankin’ new Washington Convention Center.

A close reading of the report reveals that, at least in PKF’s view, the museum’s location near the new convention center was about the best thing it had going for it.

The first two pages of the study’s executive summary basically outline the proposed City Museum’s eight exhibition areas, their sizes, uses, and so forth. And the third page? It just drones on and on about that wondrous high-tech convention center.

Here it is, verbatim: “The subject site building, also known as the Carnegie Library, is well located near Mount Vernon Square across from the site for the new Washington, DC Convention Center. The Convention Center will consist of four levels with 725,000 square feet of exhibit space, 210,000 square feet of meeting space (70 rooms), and 60,000 square feet of ballroom space and fiber-optic wiring. The $685 million center is scheduled to open in March 2003 and is expected to draw up to 3 million annual visitors, doubling the number of visitors attracted by the current convention center. Due to the proximity to the Convention Center, the proposed museum is expected to benefit from the local area’s increased visitor traffic generated by the Convention Center. This proximity will serve to provide exposure to a broad audience for the proposed City Museum.”

The study also envisioned:

A lucrative overflow function for the City Museum during “peak” periods at the convention center. At such times, the overstressed center would steer “satellite receptions, cocktail hours, and breakfast receptions” to the museum.

Some kind of ticket kiosk for the City Museum in the convention center. Such a booth would “serve to bolster interest, and sales, for the proposed City Museum’s multi-media show.”

A boost from the Tourmobile. The study pointed out that there were plans for this red-white-and-blue Washington institution to stop at the convention center. “This would bring a wider audience of visitors to the subject site, and would generate the potential for additional visitor volume for the City Museum.”

PKF had apparently read too much of the literature distributed by Board of Trade types in the mid-’90s, when the city was debating whether to fund construction of the new convention center. Back then, conventioneers were idealized as a roving band of supershoppers with name tags and expense accounts. They would revitalize 9th Street NW and all of Shaw, spark a hotel renaissance, and make the city forget about the years of the D.C. financial control board.

And now, in PFK’s formulation, they’d also usher in a new era in the appreciation of D.C. history.

Too bad the fantasy conventioneer has been in short supply since the center opened in 2003. “Conventioneers usually come in for educational sessions or to sell something or to buy something,” says convention-center spokesperson Tony Robinson. “They’ll go to the hotels. They’ll go to the restaurants. But very rarely are they gonna stop for that kind of cultural enrichment. They might go out and do some antiquing. They may go out to the Smithsonian. But whether or not the attraction right across the street is gonna draw them in, I mean, it all depends on what that attraction is.”

During November’s 22nd annual National Clogging Convention, a weeklong event “dedicated to the promotion, education, enhancement, and preservation of American Clog Dance,” many of the nearly 1,500 attendees—including a few from as far away as Australia—took time out from their busy clogging schedules to see some of the District’s more prominent sites.

“We did a good many of the Smithsonians,” says Susan Phillips, executive director of the Snellville, Ga.–based nonprofit National Clogging Organization. The group also took a bus tour of the city. “We saw all the nighttime monuments,” she says.

And the City Museum? Well, Phillips recalls it fondly. “I walked past it several times,” she says.

No satellite receptions? No cocktail parties? “We did two of our evening activities over at the convention center,” she says. “And the rest of the activities we did at the Renaissance [Hotel].”

Learning about Washington’s heritage, apparently, just wasn’t a priority for the cloggers. “It’s not, like, on the list of things to do,” Phillips says.

Luckily for these conventioneers, the City Museum will continue to serve the same purpose for others as it did for them—as scenery. On the outside, the grandiose stone building will stay just as classically stylish as always.

On the inside, though, doors to dark exhibition rooms remain locked, marked with signs reading, “WARNING! This is a Security Area for Staff and Authorized Individuals Only.” Only the society’s Kiplinger Research Library remains open to the public, though the building is always available for special events, at rates up to $10,000 to $12,000 for four hours.

Thornell Page, co-chair of the museum’s board of trustees, told the Washington Times last month that the facility would reopen within a year to 18 months after a massive fundraising campaign. But for now, the museum’s 17-member Phase II Planning Group, charged with the hefty task “to recreate and secure the institution’s future,” is primarily concerned with keeping the lights on in the library. “The intent clearly is to maximize revenues as a way to keep the building open and the organization strong,” says member Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District.

If it’s looking for easy-to-assemble special exhibitions to keep the building alive during this transition, the Phase II Planning Group could always tell the story of the museum’s collapse. After all, news of the museum’s closure has proved quite popular. According to the Washington Post, more than 500 visitors—about four times the usual number—turned out on the last day before all exhibitions went dark.

The shuttering display could feature all the really-dumb-in-retrospect e-mails between city officials predicting a grand future for the institution. A copy of the PKF study in 20-point type would also help.

Such an exhibition would mesh thematically with the banner still hanging out front: “The never-ending story of Washington starts here!”CP

L’Enfant Terrible: The Real Reason the City Museum Failed

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., an alchemical group attempting to distill something out of nothing, publishes a little journal twice a year titled Washington History. In its pages, you’ll find such articles as “A Census of Early Boardinghouses,” “Slush Funds: A History of D.C. Snow Management,” and “Beneath the MCI Center: Insights into Washington’s Historic Water Supply.”

What you won’t find in Washington History is any Washington history—at least if you, like me, believe that history has to be interesting. After a lifetime in the city and an education in its public and private schools, I’ve discovered that there’s a problem with Washington history: There isn’t any.

Sure, the drama of the United States has played out here: Lincoln’s assassination, the burning of the Capitol, the “I have a dream” speech, etc. But that’s the nation’s history, not the city’s.

If you’re looking for the great historical events that reshaped the landscape of Washington and altered the lives of Washingtonians, forget it. What qualifies as history here? The gradual expansion of the federal government, the influx of migrant laborers from the South, the eradication of alley life. That isn’t history. It’s sociology.

You’ll search the D.C. archives in vain for grand struggles of man against nature. Washingtonians tamed no raging river and blasted no railroad through the mountains. We have fallen victim to no epic plagues, no droughts, no typhoons. We never battled sword to sword, musket to musket for the high ground around the cathedral. Our forefathers struck no shady real-estate deals with Indians; they never slaughtered them, either. Pioneers never arrived here in wagon trains. We raised no titans of industry. Pinkertons never shed our blood during vicious strikes.

Our municipal leaders never hatched brilliant graft schemes worthy of the textbooks. Our river never caught fire. Our villains never committed crimes worthy of a Court TV special. Our top cop got caught living with a buddy in a ritzy apartment—not wheeling two mistresses in and out. This is why I never bothered to visit the City Museum: Why pay $5 for five minutes’ worth of interest?

D.C. historians, a small but very hardy band (they have to be, given the arid soil), object. Again and again they remind us of the same three episodes in city history. Yes, indeed, there are three events in 213 years of D.C. history, and two of them are boring.

Event No. 1: Pierre L’Enfant laid out the city. Which is to say, someone drew a map.

Event No. 2: Alexander “Boss” Shepherd paved the streets, ran up a deficit, and irritated Congress. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t paving the streets, running a deficit, and irritating Congress the basic business of District government? How many busts would we have to place in the City Museum if paving streets and running deficits were the criteria? Here is a measure of how fascinating Boss Shepherd is: His statue sits on an isolated city property not far from the District’s sewage-treatment plant.

Which brings us to the one true event in D.C. history: Marion Barry’s arrival in Washington, ascent, triumph, disgrace, triumph, disgrace, triumph, and (soon enough) disgrace. Barry inflicted his faults and genius on the city he ruled. Its miseries and achievements were a mirror of his. He was a national symbol of the rise of black political power, then the most prominent national casualty of the drug trade. The relationship between Barry and Washingtonians turned into one of the great pathological dramas of American politics. And even if you didn’t care about his impact on the city, Barry was just a great story—the blow, the carnivorous wife, the inexplicable late-night visits to too-young women. Barry’s life, and the suffering it has inflicted on those Washingtonians who love him most, is not merely tragedy (and comedy). It’s history.

But as for the rest of Washington and its past, we just have to reconcile ourselves to boredom. As Leadbelly sang about our city, it’s “a bourgeois town.” Taken in the right spirit, this is a comforting thought. The tedium of bourgeois life is offset by the fact that history—which, though interesting to recall, is usually unpleasant to live through—happens to other people.

—David Plotz

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.