- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

David and Lori Lewis knew they wanted to live in something other than a “sterile apartment complex” when moving late last year from Alabama to the District for his job at Andrews Air Force Base.

“We knew we wanted to live in the city and in a loft,” Mrs. Lewis says.

What they didn’t know at first was how to embrace a loft building that had a “multiplex” drinking fountain in the lobby and urinals in their bathroom.

Through a Web search, they had settled on the Pierce School, a former public school building at 14th Street and Maryland Avenue Northeast that had been converted over a five-year period by Evolve LLC into seven rental properties plus two flats in a row house next door.

The 1,400-square-foot loft with 13- and 14-foot-high ceilings the Lewises chose is slightly below ground — a new interpretation of the loft, which normally refers to an open, airy place in the upper level of buildings constructed originally for civic or commercial use. Lofts also convey an image of exposed pipes, brick walls and lots of windows.

The Lewises have plenty of pipes and brick — and even an outline of an old coal chute on one brick wall in the bedroom. Their unit, which rents for $2,195 a month plus utilities, once housed the boys’ bathroom; hence the working urinals that Evolve’s Chris Swanson and partner Jeff Printz kept intact to preserve some of the spirit of the place.

“The dog uses one, and I use the other,” Mr. Lewis jokes, adding that he and his wife are considering turning the urinals into planters.

A boiler room near their unit has been converted into a fitness center for residents. The green stain on the room’s floor, preserved under a protective coating, came from concoctions of drug users who took over the building during the 13 years it was abandoned, Mr. Swanson explains. (The school also had been a shelter for the homeless and a center for the mentally retarded.)

Along with the drinking fountain, the partners kept the original slate stairs and wooden railings. Hanging globe lights kept lit at night in public areas cast a warm glow.

The developers added an outdoor swimming pool and, for fun, put an old-fashioned desk topped by a fake apple on a landing. New chalkboards line the walls in the partners’ quarters, where 110-year-old hardwood flooring was refinished and a cloakroom has become a bar.

The biggest obstacle initially, Mr. Swanson says, was removing pigeon droppings. Three Dumpsters were required for the job. His advice to anyone undertaking a similar project is to “plan triple what you expect to spend.” To cover expenses, Evolve sold off other properties it owned because banks wouldn’t consent to loans.

“Too risky to collect anything if the project fell through,” Mr. Swanson says.

Pierce is only one of several former school buildings that have been turned into residences on Capitol Hill and its environs. At Third and H streets Northeast, not far from Pierce, is a 2.4-acre site that once was the Capital Children’s Museum and later a charter school.

Builder Jim Abdo and his firm Abdo Development LLC are busy constructing $200 million worth of luxury lofts and condos. About 2,000 prospective buyers signed up to view the 44 residences known as the Landmark Lofts at the newly named Senate Square site, Mr. Abdo says.

Constructed in 1874 by the Catholic Church to house the Little Sisters of the Poor, the building near Union Station has sweeping views of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

The nave of a 30-foot-high chapel, formerly part of the museum’s Mexico room, is earmarked for a dining room in the most expensive duplex loft. Newly discovered catacombs in the basement will become a wine cellar. Charter school space that occupied a separate building is being made into an amenities center that will include a movie screening room.

Mr. Abdo’s first foray into school conversion was the highly successful Bryan School project at 1315 Independence Ave. SE. Another loft complex carved out of former District property, it retains such reminders of its early life as doors marked “Boys” and “Girls” over the entrance and extra-wide staircases inside.

Unusual among developers, the Abdo company — “adaptive reuse specialists,” in Mr. Abdo’s words — designs and builds every project it undertakes with its own staff. (An exception: Mr. Abdo hired an architectural historian to research the museum/school site with a view to applying for formal historic landmark status.)

“We see stuff other [companies] aren’t used to dealing with,” he says. “Like very obscure structural openings and grids that are very unconventional. You are taking nontraditional buildings and converting them to code requirements.”

The former Syphax School at 1360 Half St. SW, opposite the tract of land likely to become the District’s new baseball stadium, was developed as “affordable housing” by Manna Inc.

Condos and newly constructed town houses adjacent to the old school eventually sold for $116,000 to $285,000, according to company President George Rothman, who credits the community’s civic-minded residents with making possible a conversion of the 1901 school. The project took nearly seven years to complete and was helped by nonprofit and government financing.

“If schools are being marketed to the highest bidder or to charter schools, that leaves us out,” he notes.

It’s not only the problem of dealing with decaying physical structures that complicates such conversions, but negotiating approval from government agencies and neighborhood organizations.

“Problems also arise because these old school buildings are cornerstone properties in communities,” says Joshua Kern, president of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, which spent five years and $14.5 million turning the vacant 104-year-old Nichols Avenue Elementary School in Anacostia into the expanding high school’s new home last fall. “A lot of people went there and feel connected, so everyone feels they should have a say in what happens.”

Enough funding came from government, foundation and private sources to secure a bank loan for the school, which began five years ago in a church basement.

Gary Kirstein, president of Bethesda-based Encore Development Corp., knows well what the process is like. The company made its first foray into old schools by purchasing Georgetown’s 125-year-old Wormley School for $8 million from Georgetown University. Mr. Kirstein has had to obtain a rezoning permit and win over the local historic preservation board.

“The most difficult part is working in a historic district,” he says. “Every time is different; usually it’s just a matter of time.”

Efforts were unsuccessful to determine the current number and status of vacant District school buildings — a subject with which the D.C. Council is wrestling at the moment. A call to the deputy mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development was not returned.

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