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As the result of a June 6 fire, one of the last downtown buildings that hosts artists’ studios is being closed down. The Atlas Building was damaged by a blaze that started in one of the first-floor porno stores. “The fire started in the room where they stored the dildos,” says painter Judy Jashinsky, a longtime Atlas tenant. “Now my paintings are covered with dildo grease.”
The flames were largely restricted to the first two floors, but the accompanying water and smoke damage was sufficient to lead the owner of the 9th and F Streets NW structure to close it.
That owner is the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), the federally chartered development agency that has attempted to create an arts district on the east side of downtown. PADC and the city’s arts-district zoning have lured a few arts institutions to the neighborhood—notably the Shakespeare Theatre at 7th and E—but spaces for artists nonetheless have continued to dwindle.
“We all knew it was going to end,” says Jashinsky, who estimates that her second-floor studio sustained the most damage. PADC has not allowed new tenants to rent space in the building, and has kept the remaining tenants on month-to-month leases. The lack of new renters, current and former Atlas tenants admit, allowed them to occupy spaces larger than the ones they paid for.
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“It’s hard to imagine how the building stayed open that long,” says artist Rex Weil, a former tenant who recalled the poor conditions during his nearly 10-year tenure. “When I look at that building, I know there are pieces of it in my bloodstream.”
Weil’s new studio is nearby, and Jashinsky also expects to stay in the neighborhood. PADC is prepared to rent space in the adjacent LeDroit Building to some of the displaced Atlas artists, also on a month-to-month basis, and the nearby Victor Building is a possibility. (Both the Atlas and the Victor are among the city’s oldest office buildings, erected to serve the patent attorneys who sought offices near the Patent Office, which is now the National Portrait Gallery.) The agency has owned the Atlas and LeDroit Buildings since April 1994, according to PADC spokesperson Anne Hartzell.
“I was in the Atlas Building for 14 years,” says Jashinsky. “And every year was going to be the last.” Insurance will cover the artist’s fire and smoke losses, she notes, but not the higher rents she’ll have to pay in another building.
At its current pace, commercial redevelopment doesn’t seem an imminent threat to the area’s artists. Still, LeDroit Building tenants will lose their arts- friendly landlord in about two years. Under its current enabling legislation, PADC is scheduled to disappear at the end of fiscal 1997. The agency is still charged with redeveloping several downtown blocks, including the one that contains the Atlas and LeDroit Buildings, but may run out of time to do so. PADC does not yet own the parking lot on the southern side of the square, Hartzell says, and has not made plans to redevelop the block.
When PADC shuts down, the feds will probably sell off the agency’s undeveloped properties, and are unlikely to give much thought to arts-district niceties when they do so. “I just have this feeling,” says Jashinsky, “that it’s going to be hard to keep artists downtown.”