Stewart Moss envisions a membership lounge, remodeled black box theater, courtyard space with a cafe and a writer’s studio — open 24 hours to those who pay for a subscription and security code.
The Writer’s Center, founded in 1976 out of Glen Echo Park primarily as a workshop for playwrights, has grown into the largest nonprofit literary center of its kind in the region. Moss, the organization’s executive director, says it’s time the Center’s 50-year-old building grows with it.
The Center provides writing workshops, hosts book readings and still publishes (it produces “Poet Lore,” the oldest continuously published poetry magazine in the U.S.).
It is in the early stages of an estimated $4 to $4.5 million fundraising quest to make its 4508 Walsh St. facility more accessible, add a second floor and re-make the black box theater that has become home to a handful of local independent theater companies.
“You can be sitting in a workshop with 14 people and have a precocious, 18-year-old high school senior who has a gift for writing. You can also have someone who’s a retired attorney or foreign service officer and in their 70s, or a housewife,” Moss said. “It’s a tremendous range. Our workshop leaders tell us that’s one of the thing they love about The Writer’s Center, the range of life experiences they find. We’ve really outgrown the space.”
Moss and the Center’s Board of Directors are planning a four-phase project that would start with waterproofing the basement and a new ramp for a rebuilt front of the building, which was a Montgomery County youth and community center until The Writer’s Center first leased it in 1992.
The black box theater, which sits almost 200 people, was once a recreational area with a basketball hoop hanging from the wall. The final phase would involve completely remaking the theater and replacing the high school gym-style risers there now with more permanent, less cumbersome seating.
In between would be a number of changes to the basement offices and classrooms and the addition of a second floor and elevator.
The Center would consolidate its offices, now adjacent to the first-floor lobby, on the second floor. Moss hopes to one day build a studio dedicated to combat veterans and active duty soldiers, based on The Writer Center’s work with traumatic brain injury victims at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
“We’ve encountered some really amazing writers in this program and we want to encourage these folks to continue their writing,” Moss said. “They tend to like to be with other members of the military, so it seems like a great thing to include.”
There would be a new reception room for the theater (for now, one of the set architects has made a multi-purpose room into a de facto waiting area) and more flexibility with workshop rooms.
The entire process is anticipated to take about five years and the cost estimates are preliminary.
Now, the Center is trying to wrangle government bonds to help get the process started. The Writer’s Center got two $125,000 bonds from the state in this year’s General Assembly. Both are matching, so the Center must spend $125,000 of its own money in the next seven years before the money kicks in.
It’s also seeking part of a $1 million matching bond from Montgomery County dedicated to arts and cultural institutions, which will be a part of the five-year Capital Improvements Budget that is finalized next year. Moss said all signs indicate the Center will get some assistance from the county.
The Writer’s Center’s Board also kicked in about $100,000.
Though the official capital campaign hasn’t started, Moss’ pitch is easy. The Writer’s Center is one of a handful of facilities in the country (think Grubb Street in Boston, The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis or the Richard Hugo House in Seattle) that offer such broad programming — playwright courses, poetry workshops, embassy readings from international authors and others.
Still, Moss thinks the Center can branch out more.
“We’re always looking for ways to reach beyond the sort of affluent, mostly Bethesda-Chevy Chase enclave,” Moss said. “I think that’s a big challenge for us. The people who use this resource, who have something they want to write about, can be anybody.”