Ellington and the Disappeared Western High School

[The following is by Peter MacPherson, DC schools activist; see his original on Ellington here.]

There are few who will dispute that the new Duke Ellington School of the Arts building being constructed on the periphery of Georgetown is going to be a stunning piece of architecture. The District of Columbia Public Schools will have beautiful citadel in one of the city’s wealthiest communities, albeit one not known for its enthusiastic embrace of public education.

In many ways, though, Ellington will be an irredeemably flawed building. Once completed, it will be the most expensive public school ever constructed in the nation’s capital. Its cost is likely to exceed $210 million.

The District government’s choice to spend so lavishly on a facility that will serve 550 students has meant that other schools in far more disadvantaged parts of the city have had their modernizations deferred, with some likely to wait a decade before they get the attention they so desperately need.

The construction of the Ellington building has required the virtual atomization of the structure that was there before it. A significant piece of municipal history, both architectural and civic, has disappeared.

Strictly speaking, the Ellington structure is not a completely new building. Using extremely generous definitions, Ellington is a building undergoing modernization, one the program has occupied since 1974.

But the structure this program occupies was built in 1898 at a cost of $138,084.36–about $3.9 million today. For its first 79 years, the building was called Western High School, with its largest enrollment 2,000 students. During much of its history, Western was one of the country’s finest college preparatory public high schools. The Home and School Association founded to support the school was the first established in the District of Columbia.

The school had very storied alumni, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, artist Thomas Hart Benton, U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., and one of the original Mercury astronauts, Edward H. White, Jr. Mildred Fish Harnack, a member of the German Anti-Nazi resistance movement The Red Orchestra, was a 1917 graduate of the school.

(Adolph Hitler had Harnack and her husband executed by guillotine as punishment for her activities.)

In World War I, 20 Western alumni died. During World War II, 142 perished, almost 30% of the 500 alumni serving.

In the early 1970s, as enrollment declined, closure became a real possibility. In 1974 the Duke Ellington School of Arts began sharing the building. With its graduating class of 1977, Western High School ceased to exist. Until 2014, when students were migrated to swing-space for the construction period, the Ellington program never left.

The Western High School of the 1970s was a handsome, but fraying, Greek classical revival high school building with longstanding and unmet facility needs. After it ceased being a comprehensive high school, the Ellington program attempted to retrofit the building on a piecemeal basis to meet the needs of an arts training program. The noted Washington architecture firm Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates renovated the auditorium and main floor vestibule.

But Peggy Cooper Cafritz, one of Ellington’s founders and now a doyenne of the Washington arts community, had long wanted a new building for the program. Before this modernization began, the old building was far from being an ideal venue for an arts-oriented school, and Cafritz was intensely skeptical that it could ever be adequately retrofitted. It lacked modern, acoustically isolated practice rooms. Students were using stairwells and corridors for practice spaces. Those studying the visual arts frequently used hallways not only as workspace but also to exhibit their work.

In a March 11, 2014 letter to an official with the consortium managing the District’s school modernization program, Cafritz, fellow board member Charles Barber, and then-principal Rory Pullens wrote that “the current facility was never intended to serve as a school for the arts, and its configuration has inherent problems in accommodating the multi-faceted programs included in the Ellington curriculum. While a comprehensive renovation could improve the current situation, the need to retain the basic historic structure will always limit the extent to which this facility can be made to serve the interests of the school.”

Concurrent with efforts to get a new building, community members in wards 2 and 3 sought to have Western High reopen as a comprehensive high school. This desire grew out of the burgeoning student population at Woodrow Wilson High School, which was built in response to overcrowding at Western in the 1930s. In 2010, then DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee had estimates done for converting Logan elementary on Capitol Hill into Ellington’s new home, leaving the old high school available to reopen as a comprehensive one. Using Logan for this purpose was estimated to cost $86.7 million.

Others, such as Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, advocated building in the resurgent U Street corridor and suggested using Shaw Middle School, a long-shuttered building on a four-acre site on Rhode Island Avenue. She praised the site as far more accessible than Ellington’s current Georgetown location and with much greater access to urban amenities.

Neither site was chosen.

Logan is now used to house a Montessori program, and Shaw remains mothballed with no definitive plans for its use or demolition.

What Cafritz wanted was a new building constructed on the site of the Western/Ellington playfields two blocks from Western. The administration of former mayor Vincent Gray estimated the cost of building on Cafritz’s preferred site to be $105.7 million. Maryland architect Linda J. Clark wrote in her 2012 masters thesis that “the [Ellington] school has a strong identity that is not aligned with the identity of the building.”

Though Georgetown had long cooled to the presence of any public high school in its midst, with demands for parking and the youthful generation of noise, the community wished to retain the playfields, as it has a dearth of public green spaces. But keeping the fields derailed their use for Ellington.

For the last 13 years, the Ellington building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of this and its location in Georgetown, many believed that the building simply could not be modified enough to get the facility the arts program wanted. In 2014, after a design competition, the Gray administration settled on renovating the existing structure. On March 12, 2013, Gray confirmed in an email to Ward 2 council member Jack Evans that he and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had decided on renovating the existing building: “We are working through some issues involving historic preservation requirements. But we are hopeful these matters can be resolved in order to remain at the current site.”

The National Register of Historic Places was created by federal legislation in 1966. The District of Columbia has 579 sites on the list, including Ellington. Being on the list provides no official protection, although it often puts a brake on the demolition or substantial alteration of the building in question by having it identified as a national historic resource. Since the creation of the register, local officials are generally more reticent about permitting the wholesale destruction of a listed property or its substantial dismemberment.

But in the case of Ellington, its listing on the National Register has had very little impact. What is being done is the construction of an almost entirely new building benefiting from the presence of a large number of recycled bricks.

Of it, Sigal Construction Corporation, a contractor on the project, said, “The historic original front bar and portico will be preserved and re-established as the main entrance for the school. The interior of the building will revolve around a 4 story atrium with a new 850 seat theater suspended in the middle as the heart of the school. The modernization includes large studios and rehearsal spaces in addition to typical high school facilities such as classrooms and labs. The exterior will feature an outdoor amphitheater on the front lawn. The project is targeting LEED Gold certification with green initiatives including but not limited to geothermal wells, green roofs, and rainwater cisterning/graywater usage.”

The company noted that in constructing the new Ellington, the building would soar from 176,000 square feet to 294,900 square feet. By comparison, Woodrow Wilson High School is designed for 1,550 students and is 376,507 square feet. That space accommodates 1,000 more students than are planned for Ellington.

The interior of the building has been gutted, with a third of the structure having been demolished outright. The need for underground parking necessitated the complete destruction of a large portion of the old building. I have visited the site every two weeks since the project began in December 2014 and can attest to the fact that there is not a single door handle or piece of molding left from the original building. So much has been removed, in fact, that large quantities of structural steel have had to be added to keep what’s left from collapsing.

Indeed, the only feature of the old Western High that remains largely intact is its Greek Revival façade–the one that thousands of students passed through for 79 years on their pedagogic journeys:

[Ellington facade. Copyright Peter MacPherson]

A project like this requires approval from such agencies as the federal Commission on Fine Arts and the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board. Despite the actual destruction of the majority of the historic building for this renovation, both groups have given the Ellington project their imprimatur.

The city has also been given a hearty prophylaxis from criticism by the extraordinary design that Georgetown architect Christoffer Graee and his firm Cox, Graee and Spack have created. The building represents world-class architecture, with an equally extraordinary price. DCPS and Department of General Services (DGS), the city agency responsible for school construction, asked for $81.5 million for the project in the FY14 capital improvement plan. An additional $57.8 million was added in FY15 because the cost of underground parking had not been included in the initial estimate—even though in spring 2014, DGS knew that the revised $139.9 million estimate was not accurate and that an additional $7.6 million was needed.

[New structure at Ellington. Copyright Peter MacPherson]

Many factors have resulted in an upward trajectory for cost, including a lack of finished building specifications as budgets were being formulated and a non-competitive contractor-selection process. A final cost of $210 million would put Ellington $50 million above the most expensive project yet completed for DCPS (the $160 million spent on Ballou High School).

At the end of May, DC auditor Kathy Patterson released a report on Ellington that attempted to parse the project’s cost. It described a process that has been extremely opaque: Accurate cost estimates were not provided to the city council—even though DGS often had more information than was provided–so the council never voted on a capital budget that reflected the true costs of the building.

But both DCPS and DGS themselves do not seem to know the true cost of the building. When demolition began, the project’s design/build firm did not have complete building specifications. The builders have cited elaborate construction techniques for the building of such components as the underground garage. The auditor noted, though, that even when accounting for unexpected costs, the garage is still significantly higher in cost than peer projects.

On numerous occasions, the council had to vote to approve more funding for the Ellington project, and each subsequent vote represented a continuing escalation in costs. The council allowed this even as the effect of this expenditure on other school modernizations became clear. Projects such as the modernizations of Eliot-Hine and Jefferson middle schools have been delayed for several years because of a lack of available funding. Garfield Elementary in Ward 8, the first public school in the District designed by an African-American architect, will likely not see any modernization for as much as a decade. Projects such as Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan and School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens have been delayed indefinitely. Many current projects, like the modernization of Watkins Elementary, are being denied needed elements. In the case of Watkins, the renovated building will not receive the full-size gymnasium for which the community has been clamoring, all due to budget constraints.

It’s now unclear when schools that have received only limited modernization will get the additional work they need. David Grosso, chairman of the council’s education committee, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Ellington project and willingly embraced its rising costs. And the council has consistently voted to fund those costs.

So how much should Ellington cost? Finding a true apples-to-apples comparison is difficult, but the following examples are still useful. The new Trump Hotel occupying the old Post Office Pavilion is 357,000 square feet and cost $214 million. That’s close to the expected cost of the Ellington building. None of the comprehensive high schools that have been modernized or rebuilt during the period of mayoral control of the schools has cost anything close to what Ellington is consuming in municipal treasure. And, as Patterson noted in her auditor’s report, all of these school projects have gone over budget. The comprehensive high school projects in many instances have cost more than peer projects in surrounding jurisdictions: The new Ballou High School cost significantly more than Wakefield High School in Arlington, even though both were designed by the same architectural firm, for comparable numbers of students, and constructed in similar ways.

Charles J. Colgan is a new public high school in Prince William County, Virginia. Opened in August, the structure was built for 2,200 students and has an arts focus. Students can study in one of several arts concentration areas, including dance, instrumental music, vocal music, music technology, theater, creative writing and visual arts. To support theater and music, the building has an elaborate and expensive performing arts center with an orchestra pit and a black box theatre. The heavily wooded site at which the school was built had to be cleared before construction could begin.

Yet that newly completed building cost $110 million.

What the District of Columbia is getting in Ellington is a beautiful but extraordinarily expensive building. Its construction has meant sacrifice for some of the city’s poorest students who attend schools whose modernization has been significantly delayed because of Ellington’s cost. It has even given charter advocates fodder to complain of unfair treatment in their facilities needs, even as they pursue a lawsuit against the city for schools that have not existed as long as DCPS schools have waited to get modernized.

Worst of all, given the choices made in how Ellington would accommodate the needs of its arts program, the history of Western High School as represented by that old and now mostly disappeared building has been obliterated. The Western High moniker has not hung on the building for 40 years and, unless special steps are taken, will remain absent once Ellington reopens next year.

In pursuing one extraordinary piece of architecture, the District government has done an enormous disservice to thousands of residents, many of them children, all the while not honoring the goals of historic preservation. Producing great art may be regarded as ennobling—but here it clearly has a price.

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