There are few parts of the District that scream federal enclave as loudly as the drab, Brutalist concrete void that is L'Enfant Plaza.
The National Mall is just a block north, and Hoffman-Madison Waterfront's sprawling The Wharf mixed-use project is being developed to its south. Between the two is that swath of drab architecture such as the Forrestal Building at 1000 Independence Ave. SW, home to the Department of Energy.
It's a seemingly inauspicious location to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but that's precisely what the backers of the International Spy Museumhave in mind for a new and greatly expanded museum — more than double the size of its present home at 800 F St. NW. The museum will essentially serve as the District's bridge of spies by generating the needed foot traffic to connect monumental D.C. and the largest commercial project springing up along its southwest waterfront.
"What we want to do is connect the mall to the Southwest waterfront, and the only way to do it is through here," D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, said Wednesday during the ceremonial groundbreaking for the 140,000-square-foot structure.
The International Spy Museum, opening early 2018 at 429 L'Enfant Plaza SW, is expected to animate a part of the city Evans described as akin to visiting Ocean City in the wintertime.
The District has committed $50 million in revenue bonds to support the project's roughly $135 million price tag, not counting exhibits and exhibit space, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said it's the museum's potential role as a catalyst for additional revitalization that won her support.
"We love this location, we love this location, we love this location" Bowser told a crowd that included former CIA directors Michael Hayden and James Woolsey.
Milton Maltz, founder and chair of the Spy Museum's board, recalled how D.C. officials thought it was crazy for him to open a museum that charged admission when he first pitched the venue's Chinatown location. But he was confident in the concept as a draw, even in a town like D.C. where most of the museums are free.
That was more than a decade ago. Now the museum wants to do something that could be perceived as equally crazy by opening an expanded facility in a part of the District that could hardly be called a hive of activity.
The museum initially set its sights on the historic Carnegie Library for its new home but those talks broke down amid heavy resistance from historic preservation groups. Maltz said he considers that "bashert," Yiddish for destiny, as it shifted the museum's sights to what he considers a stronger location.
The museum began talks with The JBG Cos. on the L'Enfant Plaza site about two years ago and announced a finalized deal with the Chevy Chase-based developer in June. JBG will oversee construction.
Britt Snider, JBG principal, said the developer had been courting federal agency tenants for a new office building on the property before the museum entered the picture. A deal was struck for the museum to acquire a condo interest in the project instead of signing on as a tenant to provide more control over its destiny.
The project's design resembles, in many ways, that of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, as the rhombus shapes of both depart from the wave of glass boxes now being developed across the District. Architect Ivan Harbour, a partner with the London-based Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, said the aim was to break the typical D.C. architectural mold while telling the story of one of the world's oldest professions: spying.
Hickok Cole Architects was also part of the design team.
"We started with the notion that it needs to peek out and encourage people to walk up 10th Street," Harbour said.
The building's black box is intended to connote the innate secrecy of clandestine service, and the red ribbons that run up its sides and its ground-floor retail space highlight that spying is often done in plain view of others, Harbour said. The museum will be capped by a more visible "white box," to host events.