The Franklin School, at 13th and K Streets NW, was built after Civil War to quiet the oft-heard criticism that the Capital paid little heed to the needs of public education.
Mayor Henry Wallach had been elected in 1861 on a campaign motto of "School for all, good enough for the richest, cheap enough for the poorest." Adolph Cluss, the same architect who designed the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institution, was retained.
In 1869, the Franklin School was dedicated after planning and construction that was occasionally interrupted for financial reasons. The total cost of building and furnishing the school was so enormous - $216,428.03 - that school officials had to cut back their educational programs for several years after the school was opened to pay for it.
But Washingtonians were proud of the building, and an exact scale model was constructed for $1,000 and taken to an international exposition of school architecture in Vienna in 1873, to the centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, and to a show in Paris in 1878. The model - and the Washington public education program - won top awards at all three exhibitions.
(A committee organized in the late 1960s to save the Franklin building searched diligently for the model, but it has never been found, according to architect Richard J. Passantino, who was on the committee. Much of the information in this article is taken from a report the committee published in 1969).
The exterior of the building looks today much like it did when it was constructed. However, a large clock face on the 13th Street side has been taken down, and turrets have been removed from the ventilating towers that run up the building.
In addition to serving as a school, the building was used as a community center for decades. The Franklin School choir regularly held public concerts.
The building housed the Business High School in 1891 and 1892, and was the site of special classes in lip reading and speech correction in 1926-27.
Over the years, according to an architectural report, steps have been added, partitions put up and taken down, and electricity installed to replace gas.
Although the exterior of the building is imposing, the interior has deteriorated. The top floor - a great hall where many meetings and concerts were held - has been closed. The other three floors and the basement are used as classrooms and administrative offices for the Adult Education Demonstration, which had been there since the building was opened departed for newer quarters in the late 1960s.
School and city officials sought to sell the building about that time. It occupies potentially valuable business property, immediately across Franklin Square from a Metro Station.
The Franklin School Committee proposed turning it into a D.C. museum. An architectural survey estimated in 1969 that to bring the building into conformity with present building and fire codes would be very expensive. One estimate was $1.9 million.
Under citizen pressure, the District government placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. That does not guarantee its salvation, but it imposes stringent and lengthy administrative procedures for anybody wanting to destroy it and makes it eligible for federal aid if somebody wants to restore it.
There are no current plans for restoration according to school officials.