To the Editor:
The following open letter was addressed to the County Board.
The board and members of the Arlington Historical Society have followed proposed changes to the Courthouse area as a result of the Envision Courthouse Square Planning and Urban Design Planning Study. We understand that the County Board will be considering the study soon, perhaps at a December meeting.
We urge the County Board to consider siting the Arlington Heritage Center in the Courthouse Square study area. We understand that support for this idea has been expressed in the workshops, surveys, interviews and meetings conducted in connection with the study. We also understand that the letter dated Oct. 9, 2014 to the County Board from the Arlington County Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board expressed support for exploring this idea.
As you are likely aware, the principal component of the proposed Arlington Heritage Center would be public exhibit space for the historical artifact collections of the Arlington Historical Museum and the Arlington Black Heritage Museum. Other essential components of the Arlington Heritage Center would be lecture, reception, administrative office, curatorial work, and collection storage space. Community meeting space would be a worthwhile addition. The exhibit space should be contiguous with the other public activity areas of the center, such as lecture, reception, and community meeting rooms.
Non-public administrative, curatorial and collection storage space could be located offsite if the exhibit space location cannot accommodate them. For example, non-public activities could be considered for location in the historic Hume School building at 1805 S. Arlington Ridge Road. As you know, the Hume School building now houses the public exhibit space of the Arlington Historical Museum. It will soon house additional exhibits on the African-
American experience in Arlington being jointly curated by the Arlington Historical Museum and the Arlington Black Heritage Museum. That public exhibit space would no longer be necessary if sufficient public exhibit space for the two museums is located in the Arlington Heritage Center.
Through exhibitions, programming, educational initiatives, and providing space for community
meetings, the Arlington Heritage Center would:
help build a sense of community in Arlington by linking Arlington residents to their common past and to one another;
create an environment for Arlington residents to delve deeply into their community's history
and cultural heritage;
allow Arlington residents to make personal and meaningful connections to their community;
link different and diverse individuals and groups together to form new relationships; and
provide forums for civic dialogue on local history and other topics.
As you are likely aware, at the urging of the Arlington Historical Society, the Arlington Black
Heritage Museum, and the HALRB, the County Board on January 1,2003 appointed a 15-member Arlington Heritage Center Task Force under the leadership of Charlene Bickford to make recommendations to the County Board on the concept and siting of the Arlington Heritage Center.
The thinking was that the current exhibit space of the Arlington Historical Museum in the historic Hume School building could never be developed in a way that would support the kind of historical museum that Arlington deserves to have, primarily because of parking limitations. It was also thought that telling the story of the African American experience in Arlington, the mission of the Arlington Black Heritage Museum, could be accomplished much more successfully if physical exhibit space were available in addition to the current online-only presence of the that museum.
Although the Task Force's charge from the County Board did not specify a location for the
Arlington Heritage Center, the group early on focused on land on Columbia Pike where the Navy Annex once stood. It was thought that this property offered a good location for the center and could be conveyed to Arlington County by the Federal Government upon the scheduled closing and demolition of the Navy Annex. Among other assets, the location overlooked the historic site of Freedman's Village, an important place in the history of the African American experience in Arlington. In late 2012, the Arlington County Manager announced that the county staff had ceased efforts to have the Federal Government convey the former Navy Annex property and was instead working to secure a closely proximate location for the Arlington Heritage Center.
A major reason to locate the Arlington Heritage Center in the Courthouse Square study area is because the Courthouse Square study envisions the area as the "civic and cultural heart of Arlington." The center would fit well in the area that Arlington County envisions as its civic and
cultural hearl. Indeed, locating the center there would help achieve that vision.
As to siting of the Arlington Heritage Center within the Envision Courthouse Square study area, at least two locations come to mind. The HALRB letter (referred to above) calls for the preservation in place of the Simmonds Building at 2041 15th Street North (now the location of a Jerry's Subs and Pizza restaurant) as the "last remaining vestige of 'Lawyers' Row,' once the location of many who practiced law in Arlington's courts." As recognized by the HALRB, preservation of this building "would create a distinctive corner and provide a reminder of what the Courthouse Square was and how the area got its name." This facade of the Simmonds Building could provide a welcoming entry into exhibit space for the Arlington Heritage Center.
Another possible site for the Arlington Heritage Center is inside the four-story civic/cultural building of 68,OOO square feet at the northwest comer of N. Courthouse Road and N. 14th Street that is called for in the Courthouse Square Draft Concept Plan issued by County staff on Sept. 2, 2014. Use of a portion of this building for the Arlington Heritage Center, a civic and cultural resource of the highest order, is consistent with the vision of that plan.
This letter does not address the cost of establishing/maintaining the proposed Arlington Heritage Center, nor who would be expected to pay. The Arlington Historical Society is an all-volunteer organization whose current annual budget is in the $50,000 range. Achievement of the Arlington Heritage Center would require a public-private partnership involving all stakeholders. The Arlington Historical Society would pledge itself to join a coalition to obtain funding for the Center, but Arlington County's willingness to play a leadership role would be essential to success.
The Arlington Historical Society appreciates the opportunity to comment on this issue and is
prepared to be of further assistance to the County Board if requested.