When Connie Morris studies for her doctorate in deaf education, she takes notes on a giant chalkboard that spans an entire wall of her Capitol Hill loft apartment. It's the same space that teachers used a century ago, when Morris's apartment was a classroom in the Pierce School.
"I could just as easily take notes on paper, but it's cool waking up and looking at my chalkboard," she said. "Especially being in education, I enjoy the irony of living in a classroom."
Morris is one of a number of D.C. residents who have moved into converted public school buildings this year. In addition to the Pierce School, the former Bryan School, Lovejoy School and Lenox School all opened as residences on Capitol Hill in 2004. The former Syphax School, developed as affordable housing in Southwest, will become a condominium in January.
They aren't the first D.C. schools to be converted into residences -- for example, the Logan, Carberry and Eckington schools on Capitol Hill became condominiums in the 1980s, and several other schools around the District have done so since -- but it is the largest wave to date.
The schools-turned-homes are coming online this year because of an effort in the late 1990s by the Control Board that then oversaw D.C. finances to sell off surplus school buildings. The District has a large number of old school buildings partially because of segregation, when each neighborhood had separate schools for black and white children.
By the time the developers acquired the schools, most had been abandoned for years and were in dismal shape. For example, the Pierce School, at 14th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, had become a haven for drug users while the schoolyard was used for dog fights.
Jim Abdo, developer of the Bryan School Lofts at 13th Street and Independence Avenue SE used to call his property the "pigeon factory." Abdo said that vandals had repeatedly written "I will not break in" on a chalkboard in the basement.
Despite the significant hurdles to development, Abdo said that the potential of the building was immediately evident. "Living in a school is a unique experience," he said. "It's a volume of space unlike any other."
Like the other converted schools, the Bryan School was built around the turn of the 20th century. The school still has separate entrances marked for girls and boys, and the old classrooms have walls longer than 30 feet, with ceilings as high as 19 feet and windows as tall as 10 feet.
Although all the buildings still look like schools on the outside, the interiors vary as to how much the developers have stuck to the theme. In Morris's apartment in the Pierce School, small holes where children's desks were bolted are still visible in the newly finished hardwood floors. Her apartment-classroom is a true loft, with about 1,000 square feet but no separation between her living, sleeping and working spaces. The bathroom, which is in the former cloakroom, is the only walled-off area.
Morris is the first resident in the Pierce School. The developers plan to rent out the rest of Morris's floor later this year and are still working on another floor. "We've done as little changes to the spaces as possible," said Christopher Swanson, a partner in developer Evolve LLC. "We didn't want to disrupt the appeal of the school."
In the apartment that was the former boys locker room, "we designed a whole floor plan around the urinals," Swanson said. He and partner Jeff Printz liked the building so much that they turned the third floor of the school into their personal living quarters.
At the Lovejoy Lofts, at 12th and D Streets NE, Atlanta-based developer Winter Properties left a few chalkboards intact, but removed most of them because of asbestos. Carl Meinhardt, vice president for design, said that the company learned from developing a previous school in Atlanta that most people are comfortable with chalkboards in their living rooms, but not their bedrooms.
The developers of the other buildings created more traditional living spaces but still emphasized the loft feel of the former classrooms. "There's not a lot of true loft space in Washington," Abdo said. "It's just not an industrial town. That's why it's so good to find a school."
At the Bryan School, Abdo retained some of the historic features, such as big double staircases and exposed brick. But he also added modern features inside the units, such as Brazilian hardwood floors and video entry systems. For his larger units, Abdo used a classroom and a half, letting the intact classroom function as the living area and putting a bedroom, bathrooms and study in the half classroom. He also turned the roof of the building into private decks for the penthouse apartments, with a view that spans from Capitol Hill to the National Cathedral to Reagan National Airport.
Those penthouse units in the Bryan School sold for more than $1 million, with the smallest units starting in the $300,000s. "People are willing to pay more for something truly unique," Abdo said. "They like the idea of being a part of the historic preservation and revitalization of the city."
Although none of the other school buildings have units that sold for more than $1 million, the prices in all of them show that people are willing to pay a premium to live in a school -- in neighborhoods that might be considered the fringes of Capitol Hill. The most expensive units in the Lenox and Lovejoy schools sold for around $800,000, and the Pierce School will be renting its one-room units for $1,995. Even the Syphax School, which is designated as affordable housing, is selling its two-bedroom units for $285,000.
School residents say it's worth every penny. "It's fantastic -- it's the best of both worlds," said John Caracappa, who lives at the Bryan School. "It's a classic old elegant look on the outside, but the inside has new finishes. When people see it, their jaws drop."