Written by Kaitlin Dastugue
Preservationists and neighbors are often charged with making the case for saving historic schools as many outdated and seemingly arbitrary school facilities standards favor destroying an older neighborhood school to build a larger, institutional mega-structure on the far outskirts of town.
Last week, my fellow State and Local Policy intern, Mika, and I, set out to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly renovated School without Walls, a DC public high school. Armed with literature on school siting and weeks of advocating for historic buildings, we were curious to see an act of historic preservation in the flesh: what educational experience could a historic school offer over new construction? This was a unique chance to see how one community transformed their dilapidated brick school building located in the heart of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood and George Washington University (GWU) into a state-of–the-art high school facility.
All the arguments for rehabilitating older schools over building new ones rang true: they are traditionally smaller—a trait many education scholars attribute to a healthy learning environment. They also anchor neighborhoods, provide facilities for community use, and give students the opportunity to walk or take public transit to school.
At the opening of the renovated School without Walls, named for its distinctive mission to foster learning outside of the classroom through its partnership with GWU, there was a feeling of eager anticipation from the students, families, faculty, and neighbors -- all whom had gathered to view the long awaited transformation. After remarks from Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor of Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, the doors were opened to the public. Oohs, ahs, and the occasional “sweet dude, check this out!” filled the tall glass-clad entryway of the new addition. The exposed exterior brick of the original 1893 building, which now took on the role as an interior wall, served as a perfect threshold between the renovated old school building and the new addition.
The classrooms of the original building provided an ideal space for 21st century learning—the large rooms granted ample space for multipurpose uses, high ceilings and large windows flooded the classrooms with natural light (while saving energy, mind you), and the new finishing of the original hardwood floors and other architectural details created a beautiful, inviting space -- the kind of school Chancellor Rhee affirmed would get children excited about coming to school and the kind of world-class facility that could help them achieve.
I caught up with Principal Architect Sean O'Donnell of the firm EE &K charged with this project. He spoke of both the challenges and the benefits that came with working with an historic school building. He also helped debunk many of the myths that come with the territory such as the belief that older schools can’t meet 21st century educational and technological needs. He believed that School Without Walls “attests to the fact that a 19th century school can foster an innovative pedagogy—new construction wouldn’t have that same opportunity.”
The goal was to ensure that School Without Walls fit nicely into the fabric of the rest of GWU's campus and that the collaborative partnership between the university and high school did not stop at the programmatic level. O'Donnell feels confidant that the technology available and the spaces created in School Without Walls are ones where any University professor who is accustomed to state-of-the-art facilities can walk into and immediately feel at ease.
As the school aims for its LEED gold certification, many of the original aspects of the old building are scoring automatic points: it’s location on transit, large windows that allow plentiful daylight, reuse of historic fabric, and its shared parking facilities with the University.
Kudos to DCPS, EE & K, and School Without Walls for their innovative design and approach—hopefully, many others may follow your lead.
Kaitlin Dastugue is an intern in the State and Local Policy office at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.