Here’s the conundrum: Move the oil paintings, photographs and art students out of the Beaux-Arts building near the Mall, as trustees have proposed, and you’re left with a handsome historic structure that would best be re-purposed as . . . an art museum. Where else, even in Washington’s increasingly sophisticated suburbs, could you find a better — or more symbolically appropriate — showcase for one of the world’s most important private collections of American art?
At first glance, the collection’s location seems enviable. Constructed in 1897, with a wing added 30 years later, the 129,000-square-foot museum is one of the closest buildings to the White House — a setting that should widen the eyes of even the most jaded office builder: Proximity to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. carries not only prestige but also real value.
“From a locational standpoint, it’s clear that it’s as valuable as any site that there is in the city,” said John F. Kevill, a commercial real estate broker for Eastdil Secured. “What’s hard to figure out is what you can reuse the property for that can produce income, given the obvious historic nature of both the inside and the outside of the building.”
Built to house a grand collection of American art, the Corcoran, with its wide hallways and indirect lighting, provides visitors with a serene experience. But spacious walkways and windowless walls don’t lend themselves to reuse as busy offices or hotel suites.
What’s more, the ornate building is designated a National Historic Landmark, governed by strict laws that are likely to prevent major changes, such as adding windows. And because the structure is so close to the White House, redevelopment would fall under scrutiny for security concerns, further lessening the building’s flexibility for other uses.
“They say in real estate, it’s location, location, location,” Kevill said. “But if you can’t take advantage of that location to create income, that creates an issue.”
Oliver Carr III, whose family’s company developed much of downtown, is building a 120,000-square-foot office building next to the museum on land purchased from the Corcoran for $20.5 million. He said the historic property doesn’t immediately lend itself to a use other than a cultural one.
“Our view is that the Corcoran museum will be best suited for another museum or national heritage group to acquire given its proximity to the national mall,” Carr said in an e-mail.
Any buyer would be faced with a hefty renovation bill. When Corcoran’s board of trustees voted unanimously last week to authorize the shopping of the building, they said they had to do so to address its chronic operating losses, including $7.2 million for the fiscal year that ended last June. The nonprofit organization’s management says it would cost an estimated $130 million to restore the building to modern standards — a put-off for prospective buyers — and has spent two years and $600,000 in consulting fees studying its options.