The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

The Franklin School on Franklin Square in Washington. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and her economic development team have been looking for someone with a fresh vision and a robust balance sheet to restore the deteriorating but historic Franklin School building downtown.

When they encountered Ann Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor, they decided their search was over.

Bowser has selected a team led by Friedman, a former elementary school reading instructor who is married to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, to turn the historic former school overlooking Franklin Square into a $50 million museum dedicated to language and linguistics, dubbed Planet Word.

In an interview, Friedman said she was inspired by her work teaching reading at Burning Tree Elementary School, in Bethesda, as well as by the founders of the Museum of Mathematics in New York City and by Washington philanthropists such as David Rubenstein and the late Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin.

A daughter of one of the founders of a shopping mall empire, Friedman said she had committed to spending at least $20 million of her own money to restore the building and turn it into a free-for-entry museum using technology to explore speech, literature, journalism and poetry.

“That connection — between language and technology — is what’s happening in linguistics right now,” she said. “All the people in linguistics are so excited, because all of these changes and this excitement is happening in their field. But it is happening under the radar.”

Friedman said she was particularly inspired by Rubenstein’s gifts to D.C. institutions, including donations to assist the Washington Monument, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Zoo.

“He calls it patriotic philanthropy,” she said. “This isn’t exactly patriotic although a literate public does support democracy, make it stronger. Look at the Pollins and what the Verizon Center has done for the city. So the people in this town.. you kind of just get motivated and inspired by those examples.”

Designed by Smithsonian architect Adolph Cluss and built in 1869, the Franklin School was the site of experiments by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and became the District’s first high school. It later served as the headquarters of D.C. public schools and as a homeless shelter.

Three previous mayors have attempted to restore the Franklin to glory. A month after taking office in 2015, Bowser axed the most recent plan, for a contemporary art museum by local art collector Dani Levinas. District officials claimed Levinas was behind on fundraising and questioned its financial viability, which Levinas disputed.

[Bowser sacks deal for art museum at Franklin School.]

In Friedman, District officials said they’ve found someone with the dedication and resources to see a restoration through. Friedman’s wealth originates with her father, the late Matthew Bucksbaum, who co-founded shopping mall giant General Growth Properties. When he retired in 2007, Forbes reported Bucksbaum’s net worth at $3.3 billion, pegging him at the time as the 105th wealthiest person in the country.

“We wanted to make sure that when we selected somebody that they had the financial resources and wherewithal to do the project. That was one of the differentiating factors I think between this time and the last time,” said Brian Kenner, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

After nixing the art museum plans, Kenner launched a search for new development partners and narrowed the list to four groups, including a plan by developers in partner with Georgetown University to turn the building into a performing arts center, an idea that picked up support from the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

[Neighbors back plans to turn Franklin School into performing arts center.]

If the mayor’s office and Friedman can agree on a deal, it would require approval from the D.C. Council. The basics of an agreement are already in place: the District would provide the building to Friedman on a 99-year lease at no cost in exchange for Friedman’s commitment to restore the building, at a cost of around $20 million, and build her museum there, which she estimates could cost another $30 million.

Despite its location, developers consider Franklin School a development challenge partly because of its status as a National Historic Landmark, making any dramatic changes or additions very difficult. It is one of the few buildings in the city with interior features that are protected from undo alterations, including its stairwell, original mural paintings (frescos) and a timber-frame roof truss system.

Friedman’s development partner, developer Buwa Binitie, has drawn scrutiny from the D.C. Council for his close ties to the mayor. A former D.C. development official himself, Binitie has been one of Bowser’s top campaign fundraisers and donated $10,000 to a controversial pro-Bowser political action committee. The PAC was shut down in 2015, but not before drawing the ire of D.C. council members.

Friedman said she was connected to Binitie through former D.C. planning director Ellen McCarthy, one of her advisers on the project. Although he has mostly focused on residential projects, Binitie said the record of his company, Dantes Partners, spoke for itself.

“As respondents [to the city’s solicitation] we got introduced to and fell in love with Ann’s vision and concept,” Binitie said via text message. “We then proceeded to combine her concept with our expertise in financing and developing historic structures similar to to the ones we’ve done in the past” such as a redevelopment of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA building in Shaw.

Friedman is no stranger to philanthropy; she is currently the vice chairwoman of the SEED Foundation and a member of the executive committee for the National Symphony Orchestra and the board of directors of Conservation International.

She and her board of directors for Planet Word have hired museum consultants, architects and financial advisers to advance the plans. She said she also relies on an informal group of experts in words and language for ideas and inspiration, among them singer Paul Simon and crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz.

Friedman said she will run a fundraising campaign to open and operate the museum but was prepared to spend her own money to ensure it opened and thrived. She hopes to open in 2019.

“If it means I have to put more money into it than I planned, so be it,” she said.

She considered other locations but said the Franklin School offered a chance for an auditorium, a restaurant and gift shop, plus a slew of existing connections to language that inspire her. A bust of Benjamin Franklin, the famed printer, adorns the facade, and Friedman said one of her favorite authors, Frances Hodgson Burnett (of “The Secret Garden”), once lived nearby.

“What really excites me about it are all the commonalities between the building’s history, all the history that’s happened there, and how it relates to what I’m doing,” she said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Read also, “The time Franklin School was saved.