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Federal building is a work of art for art's sake

September 27, 2000

Federal building is a work of art for art's sake



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Federal BuildingMARTINSBURG, W. Va. - A building that is virtually a work of art may become the center for the arts community in the Eastern Panhandle.

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The 105-year-old former U.S. District Courthouse and post office on King Street, which closed to the public in the early 1960s, may re-open as the new home for the Boarman Arts Center, which for 15 years has been at the corner of King and Queen streets.

Architect and Arts Center Board President Matthew Grove said the building is in remarkable shape for its age, and is perfect to house arts-related activities ranging from exhibits to dance recitals.

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"It's in spectacular condition, "Grove said. "It won't take much."

Boarman Arts Center"It's fabulous," said Patricia Perez, executive director of the Arts Center. "Arts organizations are more tied to their facilities than anyone else, except maybe steel mills. Art is both whatever it is you are involving yourself in, but also the place where the art occurs."

The current center is inadequate for the needs of the arts community, Perez said.

Looking around the building, she sees wide hallways and large connected rooms and envisions exhibits where a more traditional tenant would find only wasted space.

The old courtroom of about 1,200 square feet would be perfect for dance or music recitals, or to hold fund-raisers, she said.

The building is visually stunning on the outside with its 1895 red brick and four turrets, one on each corner of the massive, 28,000-square-foot structure.

The front entrance still houses the original revolving door, "probably the last revolving door in Martinsburg," Grove said.

It has marble fireplaces adorned with slate hearths. The hardwood maple floors still gleam. An Otis II elevator, one of the first ever made and original to the building, still works. It moves quickly from floor to floor as people watch through the glass shaft.

It's not only unique, it's functional because it would allow the building to meet federal standards for access for the handicapped. The doors are wide enough to comply with the standards.

"Everything about this building is huge," Grove said. And a bit secretive.

A number of federal agencies came and went after the Post Office and Courthouse moved across King Street, Grove said. "It was very mysterious. No one really knew what went on here."

A trash can marked "Classified Trash" sits on one floor. The basement looks like it was set up as a bomb shelter. It has a kitchen, what was a sick bay and dozens of bunk beds, including many in the attic, which Grove said is a perfect place for a painting studio.

Perez said the building would be ideal for school classes to get arts education and for individual students to learn to become artists.

"Can't you just see a kid getting off a bus out front and coming through the revolving door to come in and get a music lesson," she said.

Before that can happen, the federal government must agree to sell the building. The government originally wanted to lease it, but apparently came to the conclusion its size was not conducive to future office use. The sale process takes time, but Grove and Perez said they remain hopeful.

They've identified possible sources of money. And they have begun developing preliminary plans to phase in use of the building for arts groups or even as a clearing house to buy tickets for events at the Apollo Theater, opera house or other art-related events.

The public has not seen the inside of the building in 40 years, Grove and Perez said. If their dream comes true, that will change.

"Part of our mission at the Boarman Center was to preserve that building," Grove said. "That would be part of our mission here. We're hoping the community will own an arts center."

"This building needs to be a public building again," Perez said.

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