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African-American Civil War Museum Expansion Part of Grimke School Builing Re-purposing

Accompanying images can be viewed in the January 2015 issue PDF

By P.L. Wolff

“I am delighted that we have selected a team that will preserve the Grimke School as [an] historic anchor in the U Street/Shaw area while also creating a world-class home for the African-American Civil War Museum [emphasis supplied] and a new arts and cultural center for the District,” stated outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray on December 31, 2014 as he announced the selection of Roadside Development and Sorg Architects to redevelop the historic former Grimke Elementary School building at 1923 Vermont Avenue, NW and the adjacent District-owned land –- now a parking lot — at 912 U Street, NW.

According to the December 31st announcement by the mayor’s office, Roadside and Sorg will “rehabilitate the historic school building, while transforming it into [a] mix of uses which include a permanent home for the . . . museum, space for a number of non-profit performing arts organizations, and commercial office space.”

More specifically, in addition to the museum section of the building and a theater, there will be 17,000 square feet of performance studio and office space for Step Afrika!, CityDance, and Imagination Stage, and 26,000 square feet of office space for Dance USA, Roadside Development and other commercial tenants. Additionally, the project will include 14 townhouses, 30 affordable and market-rate units, and ground-floor, neighborhood-serving retail space.

The museum was founded in 1998 by former Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, Jr. shortly following completion of four terms on the City Council and initially housed in the Masonic Temple on U Street adjacent to the then new African-American Civil War Memorial. In 2011 the museum was able to obtain space across from the memorial statue in the Grimke School building not being used by the DC fire departmental headquarters, making possible the installation of educational exhibitions. (See, “African-American Civil War Museum Unveils its New Home on U Street,” InTowner, August 2011 issue pdf, page 1.)

In response to our inquiry, a spokesperson for Roadside informed us that “[t]he project would provide approximately 10,000 square feet for the . . . Museum (almost doubling their current size).” Reflecting his enthusiasm over the prospect of expanded and enhanced exhibition space Smith, who continues to serve as the museum’s director, stated, “We are excited to be working with Roadside and Sorg to create a new state-of-the-art facility for the museum which gives homage to a critical part of our Nation’s history and the city. The Shaw neighborhood is a befitting setting for the museum as it began as a freed-slave encampment in the 1800s and became a black cultural mecca before the [1968] riots.”