Rough Giraffe: Salerian sticks his neck out for his improvised sculpture garden.
Rough Giraffe: Salerian sticks his neck out for his improvised sculpture garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In his 30 years as a psychiatrist, Dr. Alen J. Salerian has handled some high-profile cases. In 1993, he debriefed FBI agents after the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas. In 2001, he spent 30 hours interviewing FBI agent and convicted Soviet spy Robert Hanssen for Hanssen’s defense team. Now, the psychiatrist is trying to understand someone a little less famous: his landlord.

Salerian shares his Friendship Heights office, the Washington Center for Psychiatry, with six other clinicians. Together they pay $100,000 annually in rent to the multinational property giant Grosvenor. The Baltimore-based real estate company KLNB Management oversees the building on Grosvenor’s behalf.

For five years, Salerian’s relationship with his landlord has been a good one. “They were very cordial,” he says. In the spring, KLNB even spruced up the grassy area outside Salerian’s office. But the psychiatrist didn’t like how the new landscaping looked. “I found it bland,” he says. “It was just green, green, and more green.” So he planted some flowers and installed a fountain encircled by 24 small lion heads. A couple of weeks later, he bought a rooster figurine and plopped it down on the lawn. For the next six months, Salerian kept adding to the collection, sprinkling a diverse array of sculptures, stuffed animals, and scarecrows throughout the garden. Now, the grassy area is covered with “at least 100 pieces of art,” he says, including a Buddha, several giant vases, a stuffed tiger, a metal rhinoceros, a few flamingo heads, a painting of a zebra, and a tall giraffe that he named after his son, Justin. “It was freelancing and free-riding and free association,” he says of the artistic impulse guiding the garden.

Salerian says the garden is a tribute to his mother, Kristin Saleri, an acclaimed painter who died in November 2006, and says it serves a psychological purpose as well. “I wanted to create a theme of welcoming the world to our center,” he says. “If in any way I can make neuropsychiatry accessible, it’s a good thing.” Karen Dean, one of Salerian’s patients, says the garden does just that. “For a depressed person, to come to a happy place, there’s nothing better,” she says. Janice Berry, a psychiatric social worker who shares the suite with Salerian, says the garden “has an amazing therapeutic value for scores of people.”

The neighbors like it, too, Salerian says. “I get so many thanks and presents from neighbors,” he says. In August and September, though, vandals wreaked havoc on the garden, smashing the lion heads and shattering the vases. “We were totally crushed and damaged,” he says. But the destruction spurred an outpouring of support as neighbors and patients replaced the damaged goods with new figurines and sculptures. “The vandalism invigorated us,” he says.

Now Salerian’s garden is facing another threat. Earlier this fall, he wrote a letter to KLNB inviting the management company to donate to his garden. “I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if I wrote them a memo asking, ‘Would you like to make a contribution?’” Two weeks later, he received a response. “My good citizenship backfired,” he says. “Basically, they ambushed me.”

On Sept. 25, KLNB sent Salerian a letter, an e-mail, and a fax instructing him to dismantle the sculpture garden. “At this time, the Landlord requests that you remove any and all personal property installed in the landscaped beds,” the letter read. He was told he had 10 days to remove the items.

Salerian says he’s baffled by the landlord’s response. “This is a whimsical garden dedicated to my dead mother,” he says. “It’s absolutely harmless. It’s just a bunch of sculptures and animal figures mixed in an arbitrary and random fashion.” He calls the letter “absurd,” and he’s vowed to do all he can to protect his sculptures.

To that end, he’s posted a note near the garden, encouraging his neighbors to contact KLNB and express their concerns. “Dear Neighbours,” it says, “Please help to save the sculpture garden and our animal friends from extermination.” He says KLNB has decided “to cleanse the garden of art and animals” and advises neighbors to contact property manager Reda Duffy with their objections. Duffy declined to comment for this article. Salerian also contacted the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition (TENAC) for help, and on Oct. 12, TENAC sent out a press release about the psychiatrist’s situation. “Usually, the evictions we are concerned about involve real live people,” the statement read. “This time, however, statuary is involved. But whether the matter involves flesh and blood or polished marble, we believe an important issue is at stake here.”

Jim McGrath, TENAC’s chairman, says defending the garden is a departure for the organization, which typically fights “gravely serious problems” like skyrocketing rent hikes, tenant evictions, and threats to affordable housing. Still, he says, the “memorial garden struck us as a fairly nice thing. It isn’t Versailles, but the neighbors around there like it.” McGrath calls KLNB’s decree “highhanded and precipitous.” Plus, he says, the amount of money Salerian is paying in rent should afford him some rights. And if the dispute goes to court? “We’re willing to go to bat for him,” he says.

That at-bat might come. Perry Reith, Grosvenor’s D.C.-based senior asset manager, says, “We spelled out our position very clearly in our letter. Our official position is he has placed personal property in an area that he doesn’t have a right to do so. We have a lease arrangement with Dr. Salerian.…According to his lease, his premises is the space inside.” Reith says the garden area is common space and Grosvenor doesn’t “allow anybody to have exclusive use of that space.” He points out that allowing Salerian to maintain his sculpture garden might set a problematic precedent. “Grosvenor has thousands of tenants in cities around the world. If we were to allow tenants to personalize every property we own, it would compromise the integrity and appeal of our properties.” Furthermore, Reith resents the insinuation that the garden was bland. “Grosvenor recently renovated the entire area in question, which was once simple concrete, with the new landscaping beds you now see, complete with a garden-bed rotation program.” And it wasn’t cheap. “We probably spent…in excess of $100,000,” on the garden renovations, he says, adding that the company hasn’t considered what actions it might take if Salerian doesn’t comply with its wishes.

Salerian, however, is undeterred. He says he’s “touched by the positive response I received from my patients, from my neighbors, from my colleagues, from my friends, and from the tenant association.” He says the response has convinced him that “art is a very powerful, unifying language.” And as for KLNB, he says, “I’m hopeful that reason will prevail.”