Don and Mera Rubell are expanding their footprint in the nation’s capital with the purchase of a former school-a site where the art collectors will build a contemporary art museum and hotel.
The Rubells purchased the former Randall School at 65 I Street SW in D.C. for $6.5 million from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design, which bought the school from the city in 2006 but never developed the site. In a joint venture with urban development firm Telesis Corporation, the Rubells will build a satellite museum and hotel complex just down the road from their other D.C. property, the Morris Lapidus-designed Capitol Skyline Hotel.
“It’s been a fantasy to launch a satellite of our collection,” says Mera Rubell, whose 45,000-square-foot Rubell Family Collection museum in Miami opened to the public in 1994. “I can’t say that I have an immediate model of what this museum will be like. What we do now is a good blueprint for what we’ll be working toward.”
Much as with their museum in Miami, Rubell says, their D.C. contemporary museum will place emerging artists in context with artists whose work they have collected for 30 years. The thrust will ultimately be contemporary, but she explains that she and her husband have no guess yet as to how the museum will fit into the local ecosystem—which is dominated by the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing as well as the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran.
“When you use the word ‘contemporary’ inside the title, you have to be open to flexibility and immediacy,” she says.
The Rubells will improve a site that hasn’t had much luck in recent years. Closed in 1978 as a school, the building was used by the city as a men’s shelter, with parts of it leased to artists. Around 2001, the building officially became the Millenium Arts Center—though it still served artists and homeless men. The Corcoran battled advocates for both when they bought the building from the city in 2006, with the intention of developing an 80,000-square-foot campus alongside luxury condominiums.
That campus at Half and I Streets in Southwest would have marked the third for the Corcoran College of Art + Design (after its central building at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on 17th Street NW and a second building in Georgetown, which the college has put up for sale). But the expansion plan was derailed by the global financial crisis, which wrecked Lehman Brothers-the financial partner behind Monument Realty, who would develop the site for the Corcoran-as well as the market’s appetite for luxury condos. (In a similar misfortune, the 2001 stock market collapse following the attacks of September 11 effectively flattened the Corcoran’s fundraising efforts toward a Frank Gehry-designed facade and renovation for the museum.)
The Randall School purchase was one plank in a plan to dramatically expand college enrollment, which stands today at 565 degree-seeking students, up from 480 students 2 years ago. Provost and dean of the college Kirk Pillow says that the school is still growing: The plan is to reach 800 degree-seeking students, but in order to do so, the Corcoran will need another campus. Before it follows through with plans to lease a commercial property, however, the Corcoran must sell the Georgetown building.
The scope of the Corcoran’s plans for the Randall School may yet affect the Rubells’ development.
Chief of Staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) Charles Allen says that the city placed covenants on the sale of the school when the Corcoran purchased it. In order for the sale to the Rubells to go forward, the D.C. Council will need to meet to release those covenants.
“There have been a lot of commitments to the community with the sale of the Randall School. This changes a lot of that,” says Allen. The city originally approved the sale because the Corcoran’s plan included an educational component, which was deemed a “public good” and a use in keeping with the site’s history.
The Ward 6 office has not yet seen details of the sale, but Allen says that the Council will look to ensure that the sale is fair to the District and taxpayers. Though Allen says that there is no timeline in place for a Council review, the Corcoran suggests the process could take 12–18 months.
Rubell says that the hotel and museum will represent a major boon to Ward 6.
“The hotel alone would have over 200 [employees]. We’re probably talking about creating 300 jobs,” says Rubell. She explains that their priority will be to hire within the neighborhood. “The storm comes, and people can still be on their job. We can employ people with children because they’re not an hour and a half from where they live.” But the museum will not emphasize D.C. artists as part of its mission: “Calling artists ‘local’ can be a form of marginalization.”
“From everything I’ve seen, the new owners are very aware of the community participation that took place with the Corcoran. So far, they certainly have tried to reach out-if not with the same commitments, then commitments that are similar in intent,” Allen says. “They’re reaching out in the right ways for the community.”
“We don’t want to be the experts from out of town,” says Rubell, who says that the museum and the hotel alike will fit the transitioning neighborhood. “It’s a real neighbor, a hotel.”
PHOTO BY TONY DEFILIPPO