Proposed Franklin School linguistics museum wins praise from federal design panel

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The historic Franklin School is located at 13th and K streets NW. (Susann Shin/The Current/February 2017)

The old Franklin School on 13th Street NW is a bit closer to fulfilling a new educational mission as an experiential museum of linguistics, having won positive comments from the National Capital Planning Commission.

While the federal design-review panel hasn’t yet signed off on the plans, members praised the idea of opening the “Planet Word” museum in the vacant 1869 building.

“The programming at the museum will lift up the school,” commissioner Eric Shaw, the head of the D.C. Office of Planning, said at the panel’s hearing on the proposal last Thursday. “That building is so beautiful. I’m awestruck by it.”

“This is just about as compatible with the original use as you can get,” added fellow commissioner Peter May.

The interior of the building, last used as a homeless shelter in the 2000s, has suffered from a decade of disuse. Evan Cash, the D.C. Council’s representative on the commission, spoke of the “fits and starts” it has taken to find a use for the building, and expressed relief that the deterioration will not grow worse. “The city has been guilty of demolition by neglect,” Cash said.

The building is owned by the District government, and the city submitted the project application on behalf of the Franklin School development team. The District has given a long-term lease to the developer but will retain ownership of the building. In addition to the Planet Word museum, the old school building is slated to house event space and a restaurant.

The proposed design doesn’t alter the ornate front of the building facing 13th Street NW, which is notable for its two primary entries — one for boys and one for girls. “It’s a grand building without a grand entrance,” said one attendee of the Dec. 7 hearing.

In early meetings with developers, commission staff members opposed plans to close those two entrances. Commissioners agreed, saying one of the two historic main entrances should remain in use as the ground-floor entrance to the proposed restaurant.   

A new entrance will be located on the building’s K Street NW side after a brick wall connecting the old school to the adjacent office building on the east is removed. The wall is not original to the building, but was added after it ceased to function as a school in 1926.

After the wall is demolished, a courtyard will be created at the back of the building, with a new entrance created by removing masonry between three windows in the rear facade. This change will allow access to a new entrance vestibule and the restaurant. 

The Franklin School was designed by Adolf Cluss and was one of eight modern D.C. schoolhouses built between 1862 and 1875, according to Lee Webb, a member of the commission’s staff. Webb quoted Cluss as describing the school’s architecture as Renaissance Revival, with elements of Romanesque and Gothic detail.

Webb said that Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, conducted experiments in the building in 1880. Commission vice chair Arrington Dixon noted that the building is historic for another reason. “The first elected school board met at Franklin, and that was the first elected body in the city” in the modern era, Dixon said. 

The National Planning Capital Commission review process for the Franklin School project includes at least two more steps, preliminary approval and final approval. The project has already won support from the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.