While walking on Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW, we saw a sign that looked official that read “Very Special Art Gallery.” We walked up and down the street looking for a place with that name but could not find it. To what does this sign refer?
— Kathy DeMeter, Alexandria
Since Kathy wrote in, that particular sign — on a traffic light/streetlight pole — has been removed. It was a leftover from the late 1990s/early 2000s, when a gallery devoted to work by disabled and “outsider” artists was in the building at 1300 Connecticut Ave. NW.
The gallery was connected with the Washington affiliate of what was then called Very Special Arts, an organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith. The gallery closed some time ago, but the sign was removed just recently. A similar space, called the ARTiculate Gallery, opened later at 1100 16th St. NW, at the northwest corner of 16th and L. It showcased works by disabled artists ages 14 to 25.
Because he walks past it on his way to and from the office, Answer Man has always been interested in 1100 16th St. NW. Until three years ago, it was home to a D.C. charter school called the School for Arts in Learning, or SAIL. That school opened in 1999, using art to help teach math, language and other subjects to elementary-age children with special needs and learning disabilities.
In 2011, SAIL announced that it didn’t have the money to carry on and relinquished its charter. It closed, as did the ARTiculate Gallery.
When it was SAIL, the building had an unfortunate postmodern facade. Rock Creek Property Group bought the building at a foreclosure auction in 2011 for $4.7 million. In January, the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman paid $16.5 million for it, with plans to turn it into a cultural center.
During its renovation, Rock Creek Property Group stripped the building of its distracting gewgaws. Now you can see what the handsome structure was originally: the Benjamin Franklin University School of Accountancy.
Ah, accountancy! As the pace of U.S. business picked up in the early 20th century, accountants were in demand. The Pace brothers — Homer and Charles — responded by opening an accounting and business law school in New York City. (Pace University is a descendant.)
Offshoots spread across the country. A Washington branch of the Pace Institute opened in 1907. In 1925, some of the people involved with that school opened Benjamin Franklin University, named in honor of the Founding Father who preached thrift. One early advertisement featured a quotation from Poor Richard’s Almanack: “He that hath a calling hath an office of profit and honor.”
The Pace brothers revolutionized accounting. Benjamin Franklin University was to be similarly cutting-edge. Classes were offered at night so students could come after their jobs. The school announced that among the teaching methods would be 950 stereopticon slides illustrating various aspects of the mercantile life, from the manufacturing process to labor-saving accounting devices.
Why not use movies rather than static slides? According to The Washington Post, “It was found by experiment that the rapid changes in the image thrown on the screen by the moving picture machine caused a wavering of attention and failure to observe essential details. The still picture on the other hand induces concentration and more careful observation.”
Among those observing were women. Twenty percent of the first class was female, a figure that seemed worth noting at the time. In fact, in 1926, the only student to make a perfect mark on the freshman accounting examination was a woman, Miss Ruth Kieffner.
In 1938, the school left its rented accommodation for a brand-new building at 16th and L streets NW. As accepting as it was of women, Benjamin Franklin University was not open to African Americans. It didn’t allow black students to enroll until 1963. (Other schools that were similarly segregated until that year included Strayer College and the Washington School for Secretaries.)
In 1981, Benjamin Franklin University offered associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accountancy and financial management. But that same year, the school was told by the District’s educational accreditation body that it had to broaden its curriculum beyond accounting courses. The dean said the school would try, but it wasn’t able to.
Benjamin Franklin University closed its doors in 1987, merging with George Washington University. As for Very Special Arts, the national group is now called VSA and is part of the Kennedy Center’s Office on Accessibility. It has affiliates across the country, though no longer in the District.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.