Dear Mr. Cortez:
In its public meeting of 21 July conducted by videoconference, the Commission of
Fine Arts was pleased to hear a second information presentation on the Smithsonian Institution’s site evaluation study for two new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum. Thanking the Smithsonian for the great effort undertaken in preparing this study, the Commission provided the following comments regarding the selection of these museum sites.
Acknowledging that there are no ideal, unconstrained sites for the new museums
on or near the National Mall, the Commission members raised concerns that most
of the focus sites pose significant issues of feasibility: the Northwest Capitol site, under Congressional jurisdiction, raises security questions and has an interstate highway directly beneath it; there are considerable constraints on how large a building could be put on the South Monument site; the Tidal Basin site is part of an open space that has been fundamental to the planning of Washington for more than two centuries and, like the South Monument site, is in an area protected by law from further development. They observed that the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building has fewer challenges, although it would require significant alteration, much of it likely underground, in order to accommodate a modern museum in such an open, airy structure.
In addition to the opportunity presented by the reuse of the Arts & Industries Building, the Commission members strongly recommended consideration of reusing other existing buildings for future museums, located on more appropriate sites that are on or adjacent to the National Mall. Specifically, they requested that two existing locations be included in the study’s group of focus sites: the Whitten Building of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—currently an office building in a prime location, directly on the Mall opposite the National Museum of American History, and specifically identified as a site for consideration in the enabling legislation for one of the museums; and the Forrestal Building complex of the U.S. Department of Energy, spanning across the 10th Street axis aligned with and facing the Smithsonian Castle, which could be redeveloped as an excellent location for a national museum while also repairing the damage to the urban fabric in this area. They also cited the ecological advantage of reusing existing buildings, which constructively recycles the embodied energy within them.
Noting the recent legislation to study the creation of a new National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture, the Commission members strongly encouraged the Smithsonian to be proactive in anticipating locations for new museums in a more coordinated way, rather than case by case; they cautioned that not addressing this issue now may compromise the sense of wholeness in planning for this national cultural district.
The Commission encourages vision and leadership in the Smithsonian’s planning for these new national institutions and looks forward to further review of this site evaluation study.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Under Secretary for Administration
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Luanne Greene, Ayers Saint Gross