A District of Columbia preservation panel told the National Geographic Society on Thursday to suspend its current campus redesign plan pending further review of the proposed removal of an acclaimed sculptural installation on the site.
Under the ruling by the Historic Preservation Review Board, the society must return and answer questions about its plan to dismantle “Marabar,” a water-and-stone installation by Elyn Zimmerman, which was added to its Washington campus in 1984.
The board chairwoman Marnique Heath told the society to present its plan again and to “strongly consider retaining the sculpture in some form, possibly relocating it somewhere on the site as part of a new concept, or if not, why that is not at all possible.”
The review board has received more than two dozen letters from opponents of the plan, including such influential experts as Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. Many of the letters asked the board to reconsider its concept approval — issued last year — for the expansion plan, which envisions a glass entrance pavilion and a rooftop deck that can be rented for events.
The schematics the society submitted of the new courtyard design did not include Zimmerman’s pool or giant polished boulders. National Geographic cited these plans as evidence that it has been forthcoming about its intentions regarding the installation. But one board member, Outerbridge Horsey, said it was still not clear to the panel that the society intended to remove a critically hailed work of art and that he was “very uncomfortable” with the board’s previous decision now that the letters have revealed more information about “Marabar.”
National Geographic has argued that it gave the artist an opportunity to remove the installation at its expense but that she could not find a suitable site for it. In a letter to the board earlier this month, a lawyer for the society argued that the board has no jurisdiction over “Marabar” because it was installed after 1950, the cutoff for structures in Washington’s Sixteenth Street Historic District to be deemed “contributing buildings.”
Board members did not address the lawyer’s letter directly at the meeting.
A National Geographic spokeswoman said Thursday that the society had “no comment” on the board’s decision.
In addition to two early-20th-century buildings that front 16th Street, the campus features a 10-story office building designed by the midcentury modernist architect Edward Durell Stone and a 1981 tiered building by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
The “Marabar” installation was commissioned by David Childs, a past chairman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, as part of the plan surrounding the tiered building.
Mr. Childs, who is now retired, is one of the architects who wrote to the board urging members to save “Marabar” after the Cultural Landscapes Foundation launched a national letter-writing campaign.
Ms. Zimmerman, 73, said she was too nervous to log in to the board’s virtual meeting. She said she considers “Marabar” a milestone work that led to her receiving many other public art commissions, including a memorial to the victims of the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, years before the 9/11 attacks.
She said she was relieved to learn that “Marabar” may still be saved.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “It’s made this lockdown feel a lot better.”