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Construction has damaged interior of historic Franklin School, preservationists say

Preservationists say construction work on the school, pictured in January 2017, which is being transformed into a museum, has violated protections for historic landmarks.
Preservationists say construction work on the school, pictured in January 2017, which is being transformed into a museum, has violated protections for historic landmarks. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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In a city of monuments, the Franklin School is one of just 18 buildings whose interior and exterior are both designated for historical protection by the District — the highest level the city can bestow. It’s also a National Historic Landmark, a distinction the federal government has given to only about 2,500 sites nationwide.

But preservationists say recent work on the redevelopment of the landmark at 13th and K streets NW is erasing that history and violating local and national historic preservation rules in the process.

D.C. officials inspected the school Thursday but did not decide whether to halt the work.

The D.C. government, which owns the building, had been searching for someone to redevelop the vacant Franklin School for years before selecting philanthropist Ann Friedman and her plan to build Planet Word, a museum dedicated to linguistics.

The Planet Word team’s construction permit limited the work to “abatement of hazardous materials,” such as asbestos. But in early August, workers went further than allowed and removed a “significant” amount of interior finishing, according to the National Capital Planning Commission, a federal agency that reviews projects in the D.C. region.

Philanthropist Ann Friedman picked to turn D.C.’s Franklin School into ‘Planet Word’

A spokesman for the commission said officials have known about the permit violation since at least Aug. 17, when the D.C. Historic Preservation Office called to inform the panel. A spokesman for the District agency did not respond to requests for comment.

The construction work is violating D.C. and federal preservation laws and the city should have issued a stop-work order days ago, said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Preservation League.

“You would expect that the city [would] hold it in a higher regard than it currently is,” she said. “There has been no repercussion. There’s no reason a stop-work order should not have been issued on this building.”

Miller, who also visited the building Thursday, said workers had removed most of the historical finishings, including a tin ceiling, wainscoting and masonry walls.

“We are currently gathering more information about the situation,” Brian T. Kenner, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a statement. He said the city is committed to preserving the Franklin School’s historical character.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs will issue stop-work orders within 24 hours of being notified of illegal construction or demolition only when that work poses a life-threatening emergency, said Timothy Wilson, the agency’s spokesman. The removal of historical material from the Franklin School does not rise to that level, he said.

But Miller said she suspects that officials haven’t stopped work on the site because the city owns the building and is skirting its own rules.

“It’s another example of the D.C. government neglecting its obligation,” she said. “They’re ignoring their own laws.”

Wilson said that that wasn’t true and that “no one gets a break” from permit enforcement.

The Planet Word museum, which is scheduled to open in late 2019, will be the building’s first occupant since a city-run homeless shelter closed there in 2008. In 2011, a group of Occupy D.C. protesters briefly set up camp there before they were arrested.

Built in 1869, the Franklin School was designed by Smithsonian architect Adolf Cluss and became the District’s first high school.

It was the site of the first transmission of a wireless message in 1880, when Alexander Graham Bell sent a message over a beam of light to a window in a building at 1325 L St. NW, directly across from the school.

At a news conference in June, the city celebrated the beginning of the renovation and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called the museum “one of a kind” and said it would “fit right into the culture and fabric of the District.”

“We are proud to be part of this exciting project,” she said.

The time Franklin School was saved

Friedman, a former teacher and daughter of a founder of a shopping mall empire, has committed to spending $20 million of her own money on the museum, which is expected to cost about $50 million. It will be free to visitors, who will be able to explore the connection between language and technology, she said.

In an interview, Friedman declined to discuss the alleged violation of preservation rules, but said the building’s history is part of what drew her to the property.

“It’s absolutely true that the history of this beautiful, wonderful building is very exciting to me as a use for Planet Word,” she said.

Friedman said Bell’s experiments at the school with the photophone, an invention that transmitted sound by light waves, were milestones in the history of telecommunications and are a perfect backdrop for her museum.

It’s also history that the D.C. Preservation League wants protected, and the building’s interior details are a crucial part of that, Miller said.

“We don’t regulate that on typical buildings,” she said. “These finishes tell the story of what this particular building was and how it functioned.”