Should the historic Franklin School become a boutique hotel? No way.


The Franklin School building. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 9

Heck, yeah, Michelle Obama should be miffed that she was photo-shopped right into an architect’s rendering of a sleek hotel lobby that a developer wants to build in the District.

It’s a flattering picture, sure. Those cream palazzo pants she’s wearing make her look 7 feet tall. But the photo’s not the problem, it’s the building.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The first lady (along with Britain’s first lady, Samantha Cameron, and apparently the singer Ricky Martin) are shown socializing inside the Franklin School, a building in downtown Washington with a past both glorious and tragic that really should end up being more than just another hotel.

This building should be a monument to education in our country. Instead, it’s becoming an all-too-realistic representation of how we treat and value education.

Have you seen it? It’s at 13th and K, overlooking Franklin Square and really beautiful.


First lady Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron, wife of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, are seen in the rendering. (Douglas Development)

The building “assumes an air of importance not commonly accorded to brick buildings; thus showing that the want of appreciation of this material does not proceed from its intrinsic ugliness, but from association of the imagination with ideas of coarseness and meanness of construction,” according to its architect, Adolph Cluss, when it was completed in 1869.

Teachers were trained there; concerts, exhibitions and public meetings were held in the great hall; and it was the city’s first public high school.

The children of three U.S. presidents attended school there. And it is way closer to the White House than Sidwell Friends.

And the building was home to an innovation that all of us rely on every day.

“From the top floor of this building was sent on June 3, 1880 over a beam of light to 1325 L street the first wireless telephone message in the history of the world,” reads a plaque on one of the outside walls. Inventor? Alexander Graham Bell.

Here’s what this great building looks like inside now: rats, rot, crumbling walls, peeling paint.

For three years, it served as one of the city’s homeless shelters, until then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) shut it down in 2008 and said he was going to sell it. That set off waves of marches and protests by the homeless community, and it put in stark relief the quick and sometimes cruel way our city was changing.

Some of the people who lived there were given housing through new city programs, but most were shuttled to shelters east of the Anacostia.River, away from their job centers and soup kitchens and community.

Lawsuits were filed, and a dozen Occupy D.C. protesters moved in, then were arrested. The building was run-down, unsafe and plagued with asbestos. It wouldn’t be safe to turn it back into a shelter, city officials said.

Anyone see the irony that a place once viewed as a beacon for American education and innovation was turned into a homeless shelter, then was deemed unfit for that duty as well?

Meanwhile, it was crickets on the development front. The recession meant that no one was ready to gamble on the place. As a national historic landmark inside and out, it’s going to be expensive and difficult for developers to rehabilitate.

Four years ago, a lawyer who once ran for D.C. Council tried to launch an effort to return the building to its educational roots.

“The Franklin School would provide an ideal location for a downtown campus for an expanded community college, a vocational training center or a program to help residents get their GEDs,” Cary Silverman wrote in The Washington Post.

Why not a magnet school? Or a public high school?

Four years after he wrote that, Silverman said he has given up his dream of the building “becoming an epicenter for learning right in the midst of the city.” He just hopes there will be some kind of public access to it, “that the public won’t have to be photo-shopped in.”

The city is attracting 1,000 new residents a month. Most of them are young professionals who have helped spawn a vibrant retail, restaurant and social scene. But once they do all that socializing, they may eventually have kids. And the next area that needs serious revitalization is the city’s schools.especially downtown.

When he was running for office, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) told Silverman that the Franklin School would make a great place for the University of the District of Columbia’s law school.

“That certainly would better serve the community than another hotel,” Gray told Silverman.

Not so much anymore. Gray has managed to get some movement on the Franklin School. Recently, four plans were presented to the city: a private art museum, headquarters for two tech companies and that Obama-loving boutique hotel.

I know developers want to present a certain image when they hawk a project. And making the first lady part of their vision is one way.

But sadly, a 40-room boutique hotel won’t do much for the people of D.C.

Cluss, when the building was dedicated, said he commended the American people for forming “a lasting landmark in the history of popular education in this Republic” with his building.

Too bad its history is being ignored.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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