Judging from the happy talk of local politicos and developers, construction of the MCI Arena and the new convention center will spark a stunning revival of the District’s old downtown. But the fistfuls of cash and eager new tenants can’t come soon enough to the Le Droit Building, the majestic four-story structure on F Street NW that owns the distinction of being the District’s oldest continuously operating office building. The Le Droit has aged poorly: Its façade is crumbling and its interior has decayed into a heap of building- and fire-code violations. The plaque commemorating year of the building’s construction—1875—has fallen down.
The General Services Administration (GSA), which owns the building, has decided to shut down the building rather than pay for the safety improvements that would bring it into compliance with building codes. Because the Le Droit has been designated a historical landmark, it cannot be torn down. Instead, the building will sit, boarded up and mothballed, across the F Street pedestrian plaza from the National Portrait Gallery.
For the local arts set, the Le Droit’s shuttering means more than just another historical building left defenseless against the elements. Over the past 30 years, the Le Droit has housed the studios of some of the city’s most prominent artists, including painters Frank Wright, Claire Monderer, and Judith Nulty. The building housed 60 artists at its peak.
The same forces that endeared the Le Droit to artists have frightened off commercial interests. As F Street began to go downhill in the 1960s, the Le Droit acquired a hodgepodge of adult-book shops and abandoned storefronts as neighbors. While artists thrive on gritty surroundings, investors snubbed the building. “It’s cheap rent downtown,” explains sculptor Janet Saad-Cooke, who has worked in the building since 1979.
Furthermore, artists demand little by way of structural quality—a good thing, since the Le Droit’s previous owners were in no mood to provide even basic amenities. The building lacks central heating and has seen few renovations and upgrades since it was built. But Saad-Cooke couldn’t care less: “If it was 50 degrees in the building, I’d hang out near the heater,” she says.
The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC) purchased the building in 1991, but its urban renewal mandate expired before it could make any improvements to the decaying building. Like other PADC properties, the Le Droit was ceded to GSA this spring.
“In terms of any known building code today, it’s in bad shape,” says GSA’s Art Turowski. The building has no alarms, open stairwells, and no fire escapes—a pricey laundry list of repairs and renovations. “There’s no way the existing rent streams could support the improvements necessary,” says Turowski.
Turowski says GSA is looking into options for reopening the Le Droit to commercial use. Considering its prime location, it’s a good bet the building won’t be shuttered for long after its current occupants are forced out on Sept. 30. (According to David Maloney of D.C.’s Historic Preservation Division, preservation laws place few limitations on how owners actually use their buildings, meaning the Le Droit could legally remain sealed.)
For her part, Saad-Cooke isn’t sure where she’ll be able to store her work next. Promises over the years that downtown redevelopment would include space for artists, she says, have come to naught. Indeed, downtown is fast becoming an artist-free zone. To the detriment of painters and sculptors, the District has focused on boosting the performing arts, which bring more economic bang for the buck. While cities like New York and St. Paul have programs that revitalize commercial neighborhoods by subsidizing artists’ studio space, Washington has no such policy—forcing people like Cooke to choose between firetraps and evictions.—Michael Schaffer