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Legal battle still hangs over Armenian Genocide museum

WASHINGTON — An Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial may someday arise from the ashes of an excruciating legal fight that's estranged one-time allies and shows no sign of abating.

But for now the unrealized potential lingers, like a ghost, inside a glorious wreck of a building near the White House.

"Is this wicked good, or what?" Ross Vartian, a board member of the Cafesjian Family Foundation, says while pointing out some interior architectural features. "They don't build buildings like this anymore."

On Wednesday, the Cafesjian foundation reclaimed the keys and title to the former National Bank of Washington property that's long been identified as the museum's future location.

The four-story, 34,000-square-foot property certainly has character galore, beneath all the grime. The National Register of Historic Places honors it. It has skylights, a mezzanine and an overall look described as Classical Revival. It has a gilded ceiling, peeling walls and a chandelier. It has sculpted cherubs and limestone walls, stained with age.

"I had to bring a can of WD-40 yesterday to loosen this up," Vartian said, standing at the front door.

That's not all he needs. Vartian is now in charge of raising the $40 million to $80 million budgeted for museum construction and the additional $40 million needed for an operating endowment. The extraordinarily ambitious goal is to open in April 2015.

Vartian is former executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. At one time, Cafesjian Family Foundation founder Gerald Cafesjian was a benefactor of the Armenian Assembly.

To say the least, Cafesjian and the Armenian Assembly had a falling out. While the conflict started over differences of opinion about the museum project, it has since taken on a life of its own. The lawsuits and counter-lawsuits began in 2007.

The consequences are still unfolding, even though a federal judge ruled for Cafesjian in a 190-page decision in January.

"The court sincerely hopes that after years of fighting legal battles, the parties can put aside their differences and accomplish the laudable goal of creating an Armenian Genocide museum and memorial," U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

So far, no such luck.

Cafesjian is currently seeking several million dollars in legal fees. Separately, Cafesjian has filed a lawsuit in Florida demanding that the Armenian Assembly repay a $1.05 million contribution. Cafesjian argues that other Armenian Assembly leaders engaged in a "personal vendetta" when they removed him from a trustee position that his million-dollar contribution entitled him to.

The Armenian Assembly, in turn, filed its formal intention Wednesday to appeal the trial judge's decision handing the museum property back to the Cafesjian foundation

"It has been, without a doubt, a painful chapter for our community," the Armenian Assembly acknowledged in a statement, adding that Cafesjian's latest actions "did not bode well for reconciliation."

In better days, the Armenian Assembly bought the old bank building in 2000 for $7.25 million. The intention was to complete by 2010 a museum commemorating the events of 1915-1923, in which by some estimates up to 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

Tensions soon developed, though, over museum planning and other issues.

In time, relations broke down completely. Following a 12-day trial last year, Kollar-Kotelly ruled the property belonged to the Cafesjian foundation.

Cafesjian, who is now 86, had donated the building property to the museum project, but with a clause that it would revert to his control if the project wasn't finished by Dec. 31, 2010.

Kollar-Kotelly also ruled that the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial non-profit should reimburse Cafesjian for at least some of his attorneys' fees, which have been considerable. In a legal filing, Cafesjian says he is owed $2.8 million.

A magistrate judge will resolve the attorneys' fees issue.

These ongoing legal disputes combined with personal animosities complicate museum planning. At present, archival materials collected for potential museum use remain with the Armenian National Institute, whose leadership overlaps with that of the Armenian Assembly.

The museum's governance must be resolved, as the existing board is deadlocked between Cafesjian and Armenian Assembly supporters. More broadly, the enduring legal conflict could create uncertainty among potential donors, from whom Vartian will initially be asking for pledges of $1.5 million each.

Still, standing in a beautiful old abandoned bank, Vartian seems sunny about the prospects.

"At some point, the legal fight will be over," Vartian said. "It has to be. Everything must come to an end."