The Museum of the Bible to Replace the Washington Design Center

A $50 million deal struck last week put the building at Third and D streets under the control of Hobby Lobby billionaire David Green.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

The Washington Design Center, which was sold for $50 million last week to the owners of the Museum of the Bible. Photograph by Jim Oesch.

Interior designers will be the first to tell you the decorating business isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t shock mixed with the sadness as word spreads around town that the Washington Design Center got sold last week and the building will become home to the Museum of the Bible. The museum is the vision of David Green, the Oklahoma City-based billionaire who created the Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores. He also owns the Green Collection, described as “the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts.” He considered several cities but ultimately chose Washington for his museum.

Green bought the Washington Design Center from Vornado Realty for $50 million. Current tenants were told by letter after Thursday’s closing that they will be able to continue operating in the building until their leases run out. The tenants are companies that provide fabrics, carpeting, furniture, light fixtures, appliances, and “everything else” that’s used in the work of an interior decorator.

“The design center model is out of date,” says a source. “Twenty years ago it was where interior designers shopped for their high-end clients because there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Now, with the Internet and with manufacturers selling direct, all that money that used to come through the design center showrooms has been diluted and is going elsewhere.” Vornado owns other design center properties across the country and has sold or is selling them, according to a source. “From their point of view, they are not seeing the bottom line as they did before.”

Some of the few dozen companies with showrooms at the Washington Design Center include Brunschwig & Fils, Schumacher, Cowtan & Tout, Donghia, Edelman Leather, Edward Ferrell + Lewis Mittman, Henredon, Stark Carpet, and Brown Jordan. A source familiar with the Design Center says there is talk of the showrooms trying to regroup at a new location.

The Museum of the Bible won’t open for several years, according to spokesperson Michelle Farmer. When we mentioned that the Design Center is a large, seven-story building, and wondered whether that would be too big for the museum, she said the Green Collection is vast, comprising 55,000 ancient biblical texts and artifacts. Is it the first Bible museum in the US? “No,” she said. “There are other Bible-related museums, but none that has taken this scholarly look at the history of the Bible across cultures and throughout the ages.”

Hobby Lobby is unabashedly Christian in its business practices. On its website, its Statement of Purpose begins by saying that its owners, employees, customers, and board of directors are committed to “honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles. . . . We believe it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured.” The president of the company is David Green’s son, Steve Green. They work together with a man who is known as the “Indiana Jones” of Bible artifacts, hunting down the rarest items throughout the world. These items will be part of the Washington museum, according to Farmer.

“We want to be able to tell this story with as much visual impact as possible,” she said. “We have a traveling exhibit now that debuted in May 2011, in Oklahoma City, and traveled to Atlanta and elsewhere, including the Vatican during Lent and Easter.” She said the exhibit was viewed by more than 100,000 people.

The only thing Farmer is unhappy about is that news of the sale and the museum leaked out so fast. “We would have preferred to announce this later,” she said.

On that score, welcome to Washington, where not much stays under wraps for long.