The PENN Building: A Room With A View

Commentary: The Emptiness and Emptying of Space During COVID

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On a quiet Friday afternoon, I slipped into the PENN Building (650 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) with my shopping cart. I felt like an intruder, though I’ve got keys to a fourth floor office – an office I hadn’t seen since the middle of March when we all cleared out and went home to see clients virtually.

My friend and colleague Courtney, our clinical manager, had gone in a couple of weeks earlier to retrieve some of her books and a few other possessions. She said she had the sense she needed to hurry in and out, like a thief, although she has a large office space designated for her use.

A few of our therapy staff will be coming back a couple days a week, but most of us have elected to continue working on Zoom. It just doesn’t seem safe enough to resume business as usual, though I could tell right away that the building was spotlessly clean. We’d been told the management company had invested in a massive disinfecting project and had installed a new ventilation system. Social distance warnings dotted the lobby floor and the upstairs hallways. Even the elevator seemed spic n’ span, though it still smelled like weed, as usual.

About three years ago, our practice owner was able to secure enough office space so that we could expand and locate everyone on the fourth floor. I was one of the lucky three to be offered a prime piece of real estate: a room with a view, with sliding doors facing Pennsylvania Avenue and a balcony where we could take a break or enjoy lunch in nice weather. Before Courtney got promoted, she and I used to have lunch together at least once a week. Even without that bonus of friendship, the perk of having one of the best spots in the entire PENN Building was a gift that kept on giving. I’ve taken more than a few power naps with my feet propped on the balcony railing.

Our move to the fourth floor was the first time in my whole career that I had a chance to furnish an office from scratch. A couple of trips to Miss Pixie’s on Fourteenth Street, plus contact with a therapist who was moving offices, netted me a nice fat couch with animal-print pillows, a lovely pale blue over-stuffed armchair, table lamps, and a yellow circular rug to jazz up the carpet. I found a standing lamp on the street and carted it upstairs. My daughter, Sally, and son-in-law, Andy, surprised me with a painted purple chest that was perfect for storing personal items along with snacks to keep me fueled through long hours.

Gina Sangster in a 2018 portrait.

I decided to take my diplomas, beautifully framed by Capitol Hill Frame & Photo, plus a couple of other pieces of artwork: my Kessler print of the White House sent to me (and countless others) by the Obama campaign; an old Chinese print of a bird; a print of the Jefferson Memorial, my favorite monument.

I left behind a large print of the PENN Building given to me by a client, a drawing done by another former client that was featured in a show at the Hill Center, and a painting of the Capitol done by the late Dick Sheehy, former owner of “the Frame-Up” on Seventh Street. My kids all hated that painting, but they never knew Dick; he was one of the early gay settlers on Capitol Hill who could be seen wearing an ankle length denim coat every fall and whose shop walls were covered with paintings of nude men.

I left enough artwork on the walls so the room still seemed colorful and inviting, though stripped of my more personal milestones: my Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University; Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia; and finally, my Masters of Social Work from Catholic University.

The room can be a more generic therapy space now, to which I may or may not come back, and one that others can freely use. We’ve always shared our spaces, one therapist coming in during the time when another wouldn’t be seeing clients; these spaces have been vacant now for more than six months and most of us don’t know when we’ll be back.

My shopping cart was heaped to the brim by the time I was done, a shawl and extra jacket piled on top of the stuffed bags, the largest framed item held precariously as I wheeled back onto the elevator. I saw no one, which made me feel safe and very much alone.

Gina Sangster, MFA, MSW, LICSW is a Psychotherapist & Supervisor with the Capitol Hill Consortium for Counseling and Consultation (CCCC). To contact CCCC log onto the website at: www.ccccmentalhealth.com. Email: [email protected] or call: 202-544-5440.