Schools of the 21st Century

By Linda C. Lentz

For some, the name “School Without Walls” will conjure memories of the experimental, open-plan schools of the 1960s, some of which were ill-fated. The Washington, D.C., School Without Walls (Walls), however, is a successful 40-year-old public high school on the grounds of George Washington University (GWU), a location that brings with it more than a prestigious campus address. The two institutions also share facilities. So, in addition to the city’s resources, Walls’s 460 students use GWU’s libraries, gyms, auditoriums, and food services as part of an innovative expanded classroom program. If they qualify, they can even graduate with a GWU associate of arts degree along with a high school diploma. The university, meanwhile, takes advantage of the high school to supplement its overcrowded halls during peak hours and to provide a place for graduate students to hone their teaching skills.

When it was established in 1971, Walls assumed the premises of the historic Grant School, a former model elementary school, built in 1882, so past its prime that in 1942 Eleanor Roosevelt criticized its poor condition. Over the years, piecemeal retrofits improved the functionality of the existing masonry building’s classic foursquare plan – a classroom in each corner grouped around a central hall. But the structure, blighted by water damage and crumbling plaster, suffered from lack of maintenance, space, and the technological upgrades necessary to catapult the pioneering school into the 21st century.

Salvation came in the mid-2000s, when the city’s Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM) accrued funds to implement a renovation and expansion of the building through the $13 million sale of a section of the school’s parking lot and excess air rights to GWU for the construction of a residence hall. The resulting $30 million, 51,846-square-foot LEED for Schools Gold hybrid facility sits on a half-acre adjacent to the new dorm and fills the remainder of the parking lot with an L-shaped addition. “The modernization of the [existing] building was very extensive,” says Sean O’Donnell, principal in charge at Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn (EE&K). “It was falling apart.”

So O’Donnell and his team returned the landmarked structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, close to its original 19th-century design. To do this, D.C.-based EE&K removed ad-hoc, 20th-century partitions, replaced the slate roof, and restored the facade – along with more than 95 percent of the windows, floors, and walls. At the same time, the architects integrated essential modern infrastructure in terms of mechanical systems, insulation, educational technology, lighting, and acoustics.

Set back several feet to create a public entry plaza, “the new building touches the old one very lightly,” says O’Donnell. Leaving the historic facade intact, the architects inserted a glazed three-story atrium and connected the floors with slender bridges between the two buildings. This scheme not only retains the Grant School’s architectural integrity; it infuses daylight throughout both the old and new structures. Crowned by a state-of-the-art media center, the steel-framed masonry addition provides everything the older building lacks: ample bathrooms, elevators, science labs, a roomy outdoor roof terrace, and a large indoor “commons” that accommodates gatherings and events.

“School Without Walls is about education,” says O’Donnell. “It has nothing to do with architecture.” But by respecting the old building, the architects revived its relevance for future generations, as well as for a vibrant academic community that continues to blur the boundaries between high school and higher education, the city and beyond.

"Schools of the 21st Century," Architectural Record, January 2011