Capitol Hill Day School, which had operated out of church basements and parish halls since its founding 13 years ago, has restored and leased a turn-of-the-century public school building abandoned by the city schools in 1947.
The move, which the backing of neighbors and community organizations including the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the area Advisory Neighborhood Commission, capped almost three years of intricate negotiations between parents, school administrators and city officials.
Just after the Christmas-New Year's holidays, the 176 students of Capitol Hill Day relocated in the old Dent School building at South Carolina Avenue and 2nd Street SE, and workmen are now putting the finishing touches on the year-long, $450,000 renovation project.
"We were all concerned with what would happen to that building because it certainly was an eyesore," said Richard Emery, a neighbor and chairman of the school's board of directors.
"The board of education had been using it as a repair shop, but the place was really falling apart," said Emery, who lives in one of the many restored townhouses in an adjacent block.
In 1978, another neighbor, Douglas Kliever, polled 50 households in three blocks adjacent to the school. Forty-nine signed petitions supporting the renovation and leasing to Capitol Hill Day, Kliever said.
In 1977 parents of children at the school first contacted the city's Department of General Services about the possibility of leasing Dent, described then as the "finest Georgian Revival school building in the Capitol Hill area," and a good example of the compatible blending of residential and public buildings.
But it was almost two year later before a final lease agreement could be negotiated, financing arranged and zoning approval obtained.
"We finally got a $270,000 loan from Riggs Bank and a $65,000 grant from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, and we started work last April," said Emery.
Since its founding, Capitol Hill Day School had operated in the parish halls and Sunday school classrooms of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation at 212 Capitol St. NE and Christ Episcopal Church at 620 G St. SE.
Independently of each other, the two churches had decided in September 1968 to establish alternative community-based schools. Primary impetus for the move came from the predominantly white, middle-class families who were moving to restored houses on the Hill but who did not want their children in public schools and could afford the cost of a private school -- its tuition is now $2,150 a year.
Instead of having two such schools in one neighborhood, the churches decided to combine operations into one school at two separate locations. In the last few years, minority enrollment has remained between 30 and 35 percent, and the school draws students from Maryland and Virginia as well as Capitol Hill.
But both facilities had always been crowded and space was at a premium. Special rules had to be established for sports because of space limitations. "In softball, you were out if you hit the ball on the roof," said one staff member. s
At the Christ Church facility, said social studies teacher Becky Callaway, "I was holding classes on a stage that looked out over a multipurpose room. The math program never had a room of its own. They just roved from place to place."
Since classroom space was shared with the church's Sunday school program, equipment had to be put away Friday afternoon and taken out again Monday morning.
"It's nice not to have to do that any more," said Callaway.
At the renovated Dent School, each class has its own room, there are library and art facilities and across the street is Garfield Park, a 7.13-acre grass-and-cement playground just north of the Southeast Freeway.
To bring the school into compliance with current D.C. fire codes, a large central stairway had to be sealed off. Two stairways with fire walls and fire doors were constructed on either side. New heating and plumbing was installed, water-damaged plaster was stripped, leaving interior walls of exposed brick, and damaged exterior bricks were pointed up.
Heavy construction work was done by a professional contractor.
"But the parents worked too," said Emery. "They came in on weekends and at night to build bookshelves and cubbies. They helped out with the moving during christmas break."
Throughout the renovation and move, everyone kept an eye out for ways to save money."We bought surplus chairs for 50 cents apiece from the Anne Arundel County school system," said Emery. "Surplus desks cost us a dollar."
Last week, Joe Pecore, a retired naval officer whose son Anthony is in the second grade at the school, logged a few hours building a partition to seal a passage between two classrooms.
"I'm just doing a little remedial carpentry," said Pecore.
Because the Dent building lies within the Capitol Hill Historic District, special care was required in the restoration process. It took months, for example, to find the mortar used in repointing the exterior bricks because it had to be the same color as the original.
Built in 1900, Dent School was named for Josiah Dent, a former District of Columbia Commissioner who died in 1899. It served children from a neighborhood of newly built homes on and near the old Dudington Manor site at 2nd and E streets SE.
Today, the the brick-and-stone building retains many of the original architectual features, including a rose window above the main entrance, an arched entranceway, large classroom windows and period interior woodwork.
To make up the balance between the renovation costs, and the sum of the Riggs loan and the Historic Preservation grant, the school's board of directors decided to borrow from the parents.
"Eighty families with children at the school lent us $115,000 in loans that ranged from $200 to $5,000," said Emery.
The loans are payable in five years.
Terms of the lease with the city call for a rental of $2,000 a month over a period of 20 years, with an option to renew for another 10 years. However, payment of the rent is deferred for the first five years, with payments of $3,300 a month for the last 15 years of the lease.