Stroll down the hallways of the Lenox School on Capitol Hill, and you won’t hear the sound of youngsters reciting their ABCs or banging erasers out the rear door. Instead, you might see young couples heading off to a busy day or singles arriving home after a long day at the office.
Throughout the District, “no more pencils, no more books” is the mantra of the moment, as increasing numbers of former D.C. public school buildings are being transformed into offices, gallery spaces, gyms and, yes, homes. To be sure, most of these buildings stood abandoned for quite awhile, overshadowed by hulking office buildings never dreamed of in the days of recess and recitation, or forgotten by neighborhoods struggling with new challenges.
And old schools are not the only structures being re-imagined and reinvigorated. From far-flung rural outposts to well within city limits, old warehouses, churches, barns and stores are finding new lives and new purposes for the 21st century.
“There is a lot of historic fabric to incorporate into new buildings,” said Chris Morrison, a principal at Cunningham/Quills Architects in Georgetown and mid-Atlantic regional director of the American Institute of Architects. “A lot of projects have a mix of old and new together.”
Within the District, these old but not old-fashioned spaces have become new anchors for neighborhoods from Georgetown to far Southeast.
“A lot of young people are highly paid professionals,” said Andrew Scallan of Scallan Properties, which developed the 1898 Lenox School into 24 condominium units. “They come to Washington and want to live downtown. So do people who are downsizing; they move back into the city when their children are grown.”
Finding new uses for old buildings is hardly a new idea, but in the past few decades, terms like “repurposing” and “adaptive reuse” have been on the lips of nearly every city official and developer. For preservationists and the historically minded, repurposed old buildings provide a concrete connection with the past while honoring the building’s former function within the neighborhood.
For urban planners and city officials hoping to broaden an area’s economic base, repurposed buildings often allow for mixed-use opportunities and the introduction of residences into neighborhoods that once had little life on evenings and weekends. And for those who live in them, there is the prospect of living in a space that is unlike any other.
“There is definitely a move toward mixed use,” Mr. Scallan said. “Twenty years ago, there was not a lot of living above retail spaces.”
Before World War II, it was typical to find shopkeepers living above their stores or doctors above their offices. One hundred or so years ago, people lived where they could walk to work or the market — and run home for lunch. But all that changed with the advent of the suburbs, Mr. Morrison said.
“There was a suburban exodus,” he said. “Within the city, what you could get for commercial rents outweighed what you could get for housing.”
Suddenly, downtowns were deserted after dark. Urban neighborhoods stagnated as more affluent residents moved away. Businesses folded, nightlife disappeared, and major industries relocated. But suburban sprawl meant people were facing longer and longer commutes, and once they got home, they were isolated in communities with few stores, no nightlife and no entertainment — unless they got in their cars again and drove somewhere.
in a twinkling, those urban centers, with their funky buildings, exciting history and easy access to a wide range of activities, seemed to have a lot of potential. There were the high ceilings associated with old buildings, large windows and proximity to Metro and other amenities. Historic conversions offered tax and other incentives for developers and often brought other business into the area.
Of course, nothing went seamlessly. While there was a renewed commitment to reinvigorating downtown neighborhoods, some of the practices involved were not as sensitive to the past as they could have been. In the late 1970s and well into the ‘80s and ‘90s, a practice known as “facadism” held sway. Developers kept an old building’s front wall but simply demolished the rest of the building.
“It’s not a good solution,” Mr. Morrison said. “It treats the historic fabric as wallpaper. What was acceptable in the ‘80s is no longer acceptable.”