The History Lesson

By Beth Herman

Lacking funds for law school and denied employment as a journalist by the Dayton Herald because of his race, Paul Laurence Dunbar read Tennyson and Shakespeare in empty cars as a $4-a-week elevator boy.

When a Washington, D.C. high school was created in 1917 to honor the man who would eventually become what historians called “a seminal African-American poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” the building’s tall ceilings and fluid use of natural light gilded a rich academic tradition – one that paralleled all Dunbar ultimately achieved as a literary icon. Razed in 1977 and succeeded by an adjacent Brutalism-style structure emblematic of its day, in time the eponymous high school was plagued with energy, aesthetic, programmatic and security issues precipitating a new design slated for a late October/early November groundbreaking. Helmed by EE&K Architects+Engineers in association with Moody Nolan, Inc., the modern Dunbar Senior High School will honor the 1917 structure’s design-forward elements, such as its facility for light and ventilation, while positioning it as a cutting-edge 21st century educational and civic presence.

The Way We Were

According to Moody Nolan D.C. Manager Patrick Williams, a victim of time and trends, Dunbar became “…a palette of everything that could go wrong with a school.” In addition to the building having closed O Street and disengaging one of the plans within the L’Enfant grid, Williams said the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, OPEFM, has identified a decline in the D.C. student population. In that regard the current high school’s size, at 343,000 s.f., is larger than the current demographic requirement. Accordingly, a decision was made to demolish the 1977 structure, though not before building a new 250,000 s.f. school steps away on the former 1917 site (the initial school measured 263,416 s.f.) so students will not be displaced during construction.

“The 1977 high school had open classrooms – no walls around them, with the idea that people would teach and collaborate within a much larger, flexible environment,” said Sean O’Donnell, Principal of EE&K Architects+ Engineers. “What happened is that it became an acoustical problem with people disrupting one another,” he explained, speaking to another of the school’s core issues, adding with the integration of audio-visual equipment and emerging technologies in education, a totally open scenario became even more challenging.

A dearth of windows in the 1977 building in response to the energy crisis of the era was thought to enhance energy performance, O’Donnell explained, noting the practice actually had a negative effect on students and teachers. With outside views and natural light credited in achieving an optimal learning environment, the architects’ objective is to include abundant glazing, redolent of the 1917 large and heavily-fenestrated structure, ratcheting up significant points in pursuit of LEED Silver (or higher).

LEED for Future Leaders

On the road to LEED, for HVAC purposes a ground source heat pump system will be installed beneath a new ball field, with the current one, which sits in the footprint of the 1917 building where land is now needed for construction, eliminated. An underground cistern will collect rainwater, and water from Dunbar’s projected state-of-the-art swimming pool is expected to help flush toilets and serve as a possible component of the HVAC system. Green roofs will collect and control rain water quantity and quality on the site, and budgetary constraints withstanding, photovoltaics are anticipated to generate power. Terrazzo floors are being explored, according to the architects, due to their ease of maintenance, extended lifecycle and possibility of integrating elements like recycled glass into their design. “You start to think about somebody putting their soda bottle into a recycling bin in the school and you can see how it comes back into the tangible materiality of the building in floors and countertops…,” O’Donnell said. “It’s going to be as diverse an array of sustainable options as we can possibly create here, all with the idea that these things will become educational options as well.” In addition to meeting the LEED educational requirement, students will be exposed to the process of sustainable technology and how it may affect their lives when they leave and enter the workplace.

As the 1977 structure is fundamentally concrete, plans to recycle it include grinding for fill or as a component of another concrete product, though not necessarily in the Dunbar project. Demolished steel will also be repurposed.

Counting among its celebrated alumni members of government, the arts, military, education, science and sports, including Senator Edward Brooke, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Mayor Vincent Grey and Duke Ellington, Dunbar Senior High School was the first African-American high school in the country. With two academic wings in the 1917 structure orbiting an “armory,” which served as the heart or social axis of the school, the new design will emulate the original concept with an atrium/armory feeding four levels that each contain an “academy,” or area of concentration, like smaller schools within a school. These are a 9th grade academy, an engineering academy, a business academy and computer academy, flanked by faculty offices for an easy integration of students and teachers.

Connecting to the four-story academy building, plans are for a two-story facility containing shared resources from the pool, gym, media center with library and large theatre, and student services and operations such as a college counseling space – in a retail storefront design. Additional urban design attributes of the building will include a south-facing entry plaza sited toward an existing park across N Street. The Dunbar Recreation Center, also across the street, will be engaged in the public space infrastructure supporting the school, O’Donnell said.

Design by Delegation

“We found that very early in the design process, we were able to interview different alumni,” said Williams, noting a collective decision to honor Paul Dunbar in the entry space also called the “lantern.” An image of the poet along with some writings may complement a wall of honor for the school population. With a long civic view from New York Avenue, and the library/media center sited at the juxtaposition of 1st and N Streets, O’Donnell said the concept at this point is also to dedicate some or part of the media center to Dunbar’s legacy.

The son of escaped slaves and author of a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels and a play, Dunbar also worked for the Library of Congress. Faced with an uncertain life at best, the determined poet met a litany of insurmountable challenges, influencing generations before his light was extinguished by tuberculosis at the age of 33.

“The alumni have told us they really want the building to celebrate the rich academic tradition of Dunbar Senior High School and certainly celebrate Paul Dunbar’s life as an individual,” O’Donnell said of the $122 million project. “We’re tremendously excited about it.”

"The History Lesson," DC Mud | DC Real Estate, April 11, 2011