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New Use for Historic Franklin School Building of Concern to Large Numbers of DC Residents

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

In the absence of a long called-for Mayoral-sponsored citizens’ roundtable discussion on the fate of the empty 1869 Benjamin Franklin School at 13th and K Streets, NW, the Coalition for Franklin School held the first citizens’ forum on potential educational and cultural uses for this highly-praised former DC Public School’s treasured red brick school building on March 23rd at the Goethe-Institut in downtown Washington, DC.

Joseph L. Browne, Coalition Steering Committee chairman and meeting convener, noted that the forum came at a time when the Mayor’s economic development staff is reviewing three responses to the District’s latest solicitation for a public-private partnership in the adaptive re-use of this landmarked building, the of which was restored between 1990 and 1992 through a $3 million grant from the developers of the adjacent K Street Prudential Building site in exchange for a significant increase in density for the developer’s new building.

With the building stabilized, and the exterior handsomely rehabilitated, historic preservationists secured interior landmark status and national register listing for this unusually innovative Adolph Cluss-designed 19th century masterpiece of the school building form.

In attendance at the forum was an intensely attentive audience of architects, community activists, preservationists, and Adolph Cluss architectural historians, all of whom referenced in their remarks the three proposals currently being studied by the Deputy Mayor’s staff. These include yet another hotel and restaurant/bar proposal; a Chinese immersion, international baccalaureate charter school; and a mixed-use site for educational and cultural activities from the Coalition.

Included in Coalition Chairman Browne’s opening remarks was the observation that an appropriate educational use might be that “an open-enrollment high school makes sense for Franklin. School Without Walls [the former Grant School] in Foggy Bottom has to turn away half of its applicants every year because of lack of space.” Browne’s suggestion resonated with Terry Lynch, the director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and active with the Coalition, and who is also a parent of students at School Without Walls. Executive Director Mary Shaffner of the Yu Ying Public Charter School, presently located in Brookland near Catholic University and best known for its much-lauded Chinese language immersion program, described her school’s response to the Mayor’s call for proposals to re-use Franklin. The Yu Ying proposal envisions moving its international baccalaureate program to Franklin and renovating its interior at an estimated cost — by several in attendance — of $30 million. Shaffner reported that her school had already lined up a blue-ribbon array of prospective contractors, including the Eichberg construction firm, developer Jair Lynch, and the Washington, DC architectural firm of Martinez & Johnson, which specializes in restoration architecture projects involving historic buildings.

Cardiologists and medical educator David Salter observed that “the Franklin School building represents an unusual opportunity to create an independent, multi-functional institution that [could] help guide educational change in Washington through divisions of education research, teacher education, digital education, online modules [and] penal reform.” Cary Silverman of the Federation of Citizens Associations cited statistics on the unfilled core needs of Washington, DC employers and emphasized the role that could be played at Franklin through adult education and vocational training. “Franklin’s location is perfect for a future downtown community college campus, vocational training, GED preparation, and literacy programs,” Silverman commented, and further seconded other speakers by remarking that Franklin “is a magnificent building, the kind of setting that inspires achievement.” Bob Wittig of the Jovid Foundation echoed and elaborated on Silverman’s eloquently delivered remarks.

Costs, benefits, and civic value of the Franklin School building — both symbolically and as a highly valuable piece of downtown property — sparked a lively concluding colloquy between the speakers panel and audience participants. Silverman reminded the audience that “the city will contribute on the front end to renovate the building for educational use or on the back end through tax breaks to private developers.”

Coalition Chairman Browne summarized participant remarks expanding on Silverman’s analysis with the concluding suggestion that the city’s short-term interest in generating money from public property like Franklin without thought to the benefits of the long-term revenues generated through education is short-sighted. No one demurred.