September 15, 2017

From Classrooms to Language Museum: D.C.’s Historic Franklin School Has New Purpose

What could be a more perfect new use for an abandoned historic school building in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., than a museum about language?

According to Ann Friedman, a philanthropist and former reading instructor—and now founder of the in-development Planet Word Museum—this is most definitely a perfect match. The Franklin School, a red-brick building designed by Smithsonian architect Adolf Cluss in 1869 that became the flagship school for Washington, D.C.’s public school system, will become the home of an experiential and interactive museum focused on the many ways that language is essential to our existence. According to the website, “Planet Word will help visitors build the essential literacy skills they need through unique, immersive experiences for children, families, adults, and teachers.”

While initially Friedman was concerned that the 36,000 square feet of usable space wouldn’t be large enough or moldable enough for her vision, especially given its status as a National Historic Landmark, multiple brainstorming sessions with an N.Y.C. exhibit design firm led her to keep it in play. Further, the D.C. Office for Economic Development and Planning loved her idea after they created an extensive RFP process to find a creative use for the four-story school building—which has been vacant since 2008, having last served as a homeless shelter.

“The beauty of our proposal is that it parallels so easily and well to the original layout of the building,” says Friedman. “The large spaces and high ceilings lend themselves to galleries. But we’re not chopping anything up; we’re leaving the spaces as open as possible.” And that’s easy to do, as Friedman’s museum concept isn’t about archival and art collections that require special conservation practices and design—the abundance of light-filled windows can stay put.

The nearly 150-year-old building, which sits on 13th and K Streets at Franklin Square, certainly has had its share of restoration over the years, but the general quality of construction remains “absolutely fabulous,” according to Friedman. She considers Cluss a genius.

Historic photo of Franklin School's exterior, c. 1933.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey/Library of Congress

Franklin School exterior shot from a special collection compiled in 1933.

An archival photo of Washington, D.C.'s Franklin School, taken between 1910 and 1935.

photo by: National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress

Franklin School exterior shot taken between 1900 and 1935.

The architectural firm hired for the project, Beyer Blinder Belle, has been more than happy to team up with Friedman: historic preservation is one of their mainstays. Senior Preservation Architect Gretchen Pfaehler rattled off numerous famous buildings and sites the firm has worked on, such as New York’s Ellis Island and The Morgan Library and Museum. Most relevant, the firm has worked on other Adolf Cluss designs in D.C., including the Smithsonian Arts & Industries building and the Eastern Market Master’s Office—so they were already familiar with his style and approach.

“One of the challenges with Cluss is that he was very lean and efficient in his construction,” Pfaehler says. “So we have to be really creative and come up with new solutions, without making it a distraction.”

For instance, some of the current floors don’t meet modern load-bearing requirements, and a cast iron staircase doesn’t meet the requirements for an egress, so they will have to work around that. On the other hand, Pfaehler says the brick foundations were immaculately laid and well-maintained, and the lumber in much of the flooring can remain intact. Additionally, vertical brick chambers designed for ventilation purposes will be restored for their original use.

“Cluss was famous for thinking about the environment, the light, and air,” Pfaehler says. “We’re letting what was originally there perform. You don’t feel like you’re in a heavy masonry building at all.” The design and decorative features inside the building, such as the murals and hand rails, led to the Franklin School being only one of 13 given interior landmark protection in D.C.

The Great Hall is one of the building’s most exciting features, originally built as an open performing hall but ultimately a failure, due to its poor acoustics. The museum will now utilize that space in multiple ways for exhibits, back of house storage, hidden rooms for AV/IT equipment, tucked away bathrooms, and roof access.

Contemporary photo of Franklin School's exterior.

photo by: NCinDC/Flicr/CC BY-ND 2.0

A recent photo of Franklin School's exterior, 2008.

The four-story building’s roof and terrace will also be restored with space for events, and the basement will feature a restaurant accessible on the K Street side. Pfaehler is excited about exploring ideas for energy sustainability credits and maintaining the building’s original small carbon footprint. She says that all of the restorations and updates are “fitting in really well with Anne’s exhibits.”

“It’s a treat to work with an owner that’s not only interested in what the history was, but how to make that come alive,” she says. “Ann’s vision for Planet Word has a really unique connection to the history of the school, and it all seemed to weave together really tightly.”

Fun fact: the history in the Franklin School isn’t just relegated to its structure. The site is a National Historic Landmark because inventor Alexander Graham Bell completed experiments on the rooftop in 1880 with his new photophone, which transmitted sound by light waves.

Friedman is delighted with the various intersections of history and language the building offers. “You’ve got the name of the school, from Benjamin Franklin, who wanted to be known as a printer. Frances Hodgsen Burnett (author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess) lived catty-corner. The Washington Post is catty-corner. You couldn’t make this up. It’s just such a perfect spot.”

Fittingly, the Franklin School’s evolution will be incorporated into a museum exhibit. “I see the history of the building being so similar to the history of words,” says Friedman. “They change over time. You can look at a word, and sometimes discern its history and where it came from. It’s sort of the same thing with the bones of a historic structure. We want you to be able to see the history of where it came from.”

The Planet Word Museum is slated to open at the end of 2019.

Jenna Sauber is a freelance writer and nonprofit communications consultant in Washington, D.C. She blogs about literature, family, and more at jennasauber.com.

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