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Former nightclub will be India's brand new cultural hub in US

October 31, 2013 13:20 IST

The government of India has brought a property to house an Indian Cultural Centre in downtown Washington, DC for a whopping $5.7 million.

The deal comes after two decades "of a quest and search for building that could be a voice for India," which, according to Indian Ambassador to the United States Nirupama Rao, had reached epic proportions.

Rao told, “It was a priority for me and was one of my goals.”

The property -- a two-story building -- was sold by the principals of Rock Creek Property Group to India for $5,750,000, or $467 per square foot, based on the total building size of 12,325 square feet, which includes two stories plus a small lower level.

“I wasn’t going to leave town without making sure it was done -- and it’s a done deal,” the ambassador, who will relinquish her charge on November 4 and be replaced by S Jaishankar, currently India’s ambassador to China, said, and added, “So, I would count it as one of my major achievements.”

Rao acknowledged that the building would have to be refurbished -- which some real estate analysts conservatively estimate will cost at least $1 million -- but said “the next ambassador will have to take it from here.”

She said that although it was being dubbed as a cultural centre, she envisaged it to be more “of a clearing house for ideas -- a think tank and nerve centre for ideas -- and not just a cultural centre.”

Rao, who was obviously elated over the purchase, said, “It’s a heritage building I believe, which had once been a main post office.”

The building had also once housed a nightclub called Cada Vez, which had attracted a largely Latina and gay clientele.

It has since gone through several other incarnations before being bought by the Rock Creek Property Group in December 2010 for $2.7 million.

At a reception accorded to her by the Indian American community, Rao said, “Our embassy worked very hard on this,” adding that embassy personnel had looked at over 20 buildings before deciding on 1438 U Street.

“Finally the stars were aligned, everything worked out, we purchased the building and now the task is to refurbish it,” she said.

Rao reiterated, “I see it not merely as a cultural centre for India. We have a lot of Indian culture -- all of you have been so active and there are so many Indian Americans who are votaries for India's cultural expression in this country.”

Rao said, ‘I see that even more than that. I see that as a nerve centre for new ideas, for seminars, for conferences. That’s been my dream -- that’s been my dream for this centre, to make more people more aware of the importance and significance of India and its growing role in the world.”

At a farewell reception she hosted at the embassy residence on Wednesday night, attended by several hundred guests from senior administration officials, judges, including the newly minted Indian American federal judge, Sri Srinivasan, Indian American community leaders, diplomats and media, Rao couldn’t resist expressing her elation over this acquisition on her watch that will be one of her enduring legacies.

She said, “It’s going to be literally a think tank for India, for innovative exchanges of new concepts and new constructs for this relationship and also a showcasing of Indian culture -- our millenial culture, which is so fascinating for the people of the United States.’

For decades, in interviews with this correspondent, Indian ambassadors posted in Washington would boast that during their watch, they would push for and get the purchase of a property to house an Indian cultural centre, which would be on a par with the India House in London.

These ambassadors would also take the various directors-general of the ICCR when they would visit Washington, DC and show them various properties, but none ultimately panned out.

At various times, members of the affluent Indian American community in the Washington area have approached the government of India and expressed a willingness to raise money for the purchase of a property to showcase India, but New Delhi has been reticent to lose its autonomy by taking up such offers.

Diplomatic observers acknowledged that the purchase happened on Rao’s watch, indicated her perseverance and tenacity to get this done during her tenure and also the clout and influence she exercised with the powers that be in New Delhi.

During its initial 18 months of ownership, the Rock Creek Property Group had examined a number of redevelopment alternatives for the building, which had included a comprehensive development plan to reposition the asset as residential and add several stories of housing.

However, it said, in the end it had opted for its original business plan, which involved strategic interior renovations and then a sale to a user-purchaser who would occupy the entirety of the project for its own use.

Rock Creek’s Gary Schlager, a principal at the firm, said, "The property’s location and special attributes are without equal in this corridor".

He said, "Large, efficient floors sizes, exposed brick and 10-20 foot ceilings are rare and really differentiated this opportunity in the market. We are just thrilled to see the property find the perfect fit in its new owner, the Republic of India, who will invest the requisite capital for its own use and to the benefit of the surrounding, growing community."

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC