In Honoring the Past, a New Future for DC Public Schools

From the time of its founding, the DC public school system has pretty much always been both a proving ground for education and a demonstration of the power that architecture holds to enhance student experience and success.  Today, the District is in the middle of an ambitious plan to upgrade and modernize its schools. DC’s Department of General Services, and the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization before it, under the stewardship of City Administrator Allen Lew, has done a commendable job managing billions of dollars in fast-tracked construction. They’re doing an even better job in the formidable task of making up for decades of abuse and neglect.

But key to shepherding the District’s resources will be finding value in the District’s historic resources. And recent restoration efforts, such as those at the Park View School (designed by Municipal Architect Snowden Ashford in 1915) and Cardozo Senior High (by William B. Ittner in 1926), are a trend that ought to continue.

Park View School c. 1920

Park View School c. 1920

Many of DC’s oldest school buildings epitomize the places that form an enduring and honored community nucleus.  It’s not only their brick and mortar that has withstood the test of time; it’s the symmetry, the elegance, the ornament, and the early understanding that healthy and well-designed surroundings are integral to advancing scholarship.

The groundbreaking architect Henry Barnard, for example, was among the first to associate good ventilation, heating, lighting, and classroom comfort with a quality education. And he wanted to prove his point with schools in DC. Following the Civil War, spending on schools even became an important counterpoint to a campaign to relocate the nation’s capital to the Midwest. The Franklin School at 13th and K (by Adolf Cluss in 1869) was a reflection of that commitment. But of six others built under Cluss’ supervision, only the Charles Sumner School (now the archives for DC Public Schools) at 17th and M survives. Although it’s been on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites for nearly 150 years, its future use frequently comes into question.

Charles Sumner School

Charles Sumner School

Look around. Most of the oldest District school buildings date back only to the 1920s and -30s.  These timeless landmarks are valued in their communities–a remarkable feat when we consider that many were built in the early 20thcentury, when the nation’s economy—and the financial welfare of architects—was strained. They were pressed by the bottom line as we are pressed today.  But rather than building disposable buildings with limited lifespans, they built schools to last. They had an almost innate understanding of how to get the biggest bang for the buck. They used good mid-Atlantic red clay bricks (many with Flemish bond and contrasting headers). In traditional styles, they focused on achieving the highest visual impact by placing detail and ornament where it would be most useful—here a wonderful cupola, there a curving pavilion.We can take a lesson from that.

Change, of course, is inevitable. Some of the best examples of DC schools on the National Register of Historic Place, like the Alexander Crummell School (by Ashford in 1910) and the William Syphax School (by Marsh & Peter in 1900), aren’t used as schools anymore. The DC Public School District, which calls this a “time of dramatic progress,” may shutter 15 schools because they’re under-attended. At the same time, new school buildings are—and should be—part of the broader plan. Our communities, however, may not always be in need of an entirely new facility, a new facade, or even major additions in a modern vocabulary, that erases a historic fabric of community memories and legacies. Not every modification—minor or major—must be traditional, but any decision to use a more modern treatment should be handled with the utmost skill, care, understanding, and respect, so the original architects’ aesthetic is preserved and our schools look like the civic landmarks they are.

Alexander Crummell School

Alexander Crummell School

A new strategic plan recommits DC Public Schools “to providing every student with a safe, academically challenging, and inspiring learning experience.”  Let’s remember that sometimes that experience starts with the facility itself, with architecture that inspires and celebrates the majesty of education. For our students’ sake, we need schools that are a strong statement of the role of public education in society. We need that visual stimulus and reminder that excellence counts—with designs that surpass budget constraints, exceed standards, and reach beyond even the highest expectations.

These students are our future.  We owe it to them to give them statements of civic pride and community, with school architecture that appropriately illustrates a respect for the past while galvanizing a curiosity and faith in the future.

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