- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

Two massive murals that are landmarks in Northwest could soon be lost to a development boon around the new Washington Convention Center and along the U Street corridor.
G. Byron Peck's murals one of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the other of jazz legend Duke Ellington are considered important features of the city's public arts landscape. But their quasi-landmark status doesn't appear sufficient to stave off demolition.
"It's a crime to destroy it," said Abgy Mejvett, whose apartment window faces the 45-by-35-foot mural of Frederick Douglass, which covers the side of a building near the intersection of 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
A little more than a year from now, Mr. Mejvett's view will be dominated by the windows and balconies of Sovereign Park, a 12-story apartment complex being developed by JBG Companies. The building will stand within inches of the mural, completely blocking it from view.
"It is supposed to be here for everyone as a treasure. It should survive," said Mr. Mejvett, 41, an African immigrant.
An office building going up just off the plaza at the Metro station at 13th and U streets in Northwest will obscure a third of the Duke Ellington mural that overlooks the plaza.
"I've been in a state of depression and shock," said Mr. Peck, 48, who painted the Douglass mural in 1995 and the Ellington mural in 1997. He said there was hope that the Ellington mural could be moved, but the Douglass mural will surely be lost.
"It's hard for me to come to grips with losing them," he said. "Even if we can move Duke Ellington, it was designed to overlook that plaza. Just slapping it on the side of another building is not what I had in mind," he said.
The Douglass mural was produced at a cost of $30,000, with McDonald's contributing $20,000 and the remainder coming from the D.C. Department of Recreation and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. It took months to plan and about six weeks to execute.
Mr. Peck used a special paint formulated to last a century.
The 24-by-34-foot Ellington mural cost $35,000, with Mobil Corp. contributing $25,000 and the recreation department and arts commission paying the rest. It also took months to plan and about two months to execute.
Elimination of the Douglass mural will be a "big loss" for the city, said Anthony Gittens, director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
"It has almost become a landmark," he said. "We want to make sure that those kind of exhibits remain a part of the city."
Unless the developer radically alters his plans, there is no hope of saving it, Mr. Gittens said. But there is a chance that the Ellington mural could survive.
Unlike the Douglass mural, which was painted on a stucco wall, the Ellington mural was painted on a series of 4-by-8-foot concrete slabs that were bolted to the wall.
"We can carefully move it, but it is rather fragile," Mr. Peck said.
He is lobbying the developer Marvin Jower Developer to increase the building setback by 8 feet to keep most of the mural in view. Otherwise, he said he will ask for help in paying to move the panels but he was not certain whether the developer would be open to either request.
He is also asking for reparations from JBG Companies to re-create the Douglass mural elsewhere. Mr. Peck said the recreation department is considering sites, including the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia.
"It's a small price to pay for what the city is going to be losing," he said.
Marvin Jower Developer and JBG Companies were unavailable for comment yesterday.
The neighborhood surrounding the Ellington mural also is poised to put pressure on the developer to help relocate the artwork.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for that section of Ward 1 has put the mural on the agenda of a 7 p.m. meeting tonight at the True Reformer Building at 12th and U streets.
"I expect a lot of people are exercised about this," said Phil Spalding, a newly elected commissioner.
"When this mural went up, it just automatically turned into a landmark. It does symbolize the history of this part of town," he said. "It has been accepted by the community, and nobody wants to see it go anywhere."
He said the commission would try to galvanize politicians and the community to prod the developer.
"I don't think there is too much to be worried about," Mr. Spalding said. "When [the developer] sees the trade-off of community wrath versus paying to move the mural, I think he will gladly move the mural."
Mr. Peck said he was surprised by Metro's decision to sell the property to a developer, thereby jeopardizing an existing artwork, when the city has budgeted $200,000 for similar art at other Metro stations.
Metro officials did not return calls seeking comment late yesterday.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said plans have long been on the books to develop around the Metro station.
"It was always well understood that eventually a building would go up on this site," he said.
Mr. Graham, who represents the ward where the Ellington mural is located, was nevertheless upbeat about saving the mural.
"I don't want the impression being given that this is in imminent danger. We have time to work this out," he said, adding that construction probably will not start until spring. "There are a range of options, and we are looking at them all."
Mr. Graham said the options include moving the mural to a location as close as across the street or moving it to another prominent location, such as two blocks away at 15th and U streets.
He said the developer might be willing to slightly alter the building plans so that most of the mural would remain in view.
"It is a very important, significant piece of art," he said. "Whether we have to move it or something else, we have ample time to figure it out."

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