Old Schoolhouses Make For Some Nifty Homes

Posted July 22, 2008 at 5:34pm

When Kristen Dennis moved to D.C. from California in 2005, one of her first tasks was kindergarten shopping for her daughter. She noticed a number of school buildings in her Capitol Hill neighborhood, but when she checked on enrolling her child, Dennis learned that many of them had been turned into homes — and posh homes, at that.

Intrigued, Dennis began learning about the history of the buildings. Among the schools’ second lives that Dennis discovered: a million-dollar loft that housed a Senator and a Results Gym in Southeast frequented by Hill staffers.

Dennis recently released the product of her intrigue, a book called “Capitol Hill Converted” that came out in May.

The story of Capitol Hill school conversions dates back to the days of segregation and suburban flight. Since blacks and whites — and sometimes boys and girls — were educated in separate buildings when the Capitol Hill schools were constructed in the early 20th century, the neighborhood was populated by many small schools. There sometimes were two schools on the same block.

When residents fled to growing suburbs starting in the 1950s, it left the District with a number of underpopulated schools. In 1997, according to Dennis, D.C. composed a list of about 70 schools for closure.

“Capitol Hill Converted” documents the refurbishing of 12 Capitol Hill schools, mostly through pictures rather than words. There are roughly 100 images, including before-and-after shots and blueprints.

“My motivation for doing the book came from just being generally enamored of the Capitol Hill neighborhood — the architecture and the village and the atmosphere,” said Dennis, an employee of the federal government who did much of the work on the book during her spare time last summer. “And living here, I was immersed in it.”

That the buildings used to be schools is unmistakable. Most still have the name of the school engraved on the outside, and some have “Boys Entrance” and “Girls Entrance” markings.

In the former Pierce School, located at 1375 Maryland Ave. NE, one loft still contains blackboards, an American flag and replica school clocks. There are cloakrooms that have been turned into bathrooms and an interior hallway with a four-faucet water fountain.

Though most residents know they are living in a former school, Dennis said, “what draws them to it is the volume of space. They’re enormous. There are 19-foot ceilings in some cases, windows 17 feet tall. There is a lot more space than in a small row home or a condo somewhere.”

Many of the former schools also boast rooftop gardens with views of the Capitol.

Jim Abdo, a real estate developer who refurbished Bryan School at 1315 Independence Ave. SE, rented one of the building’s penthouses to then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) a few years ago. Abdo estimated the value of the penthouses at more than $1 million and said some of the other units have sold for around $900,000.

Abdo said he tried to retain the school’s character as he fixed the property that had been vacant for 20 years. The school was used by white students and had separate entrances for boys and girls, with massive staircases on each side.

“With stairwells designed for a school, you can imagine how big they are,” Abdo said. “I could have ripped them out and made that space into condos, but I felt that would really undermine the integrity of the building. I even left the original stair treads that are all worn down from 100 years of schoolchildren running up and down them.”

It’s not easy in D.C. to find property with the potential of the schools, according to Abdo.

“This city wasn’t built on industry. It was built on bureaucracy,” he said. “As a result, you don’t find a lot of warehouses like you would in Chicago. I like finding distressed buildings like abandoned hotels and converting them into living spaces.”

Not all of the former schools have become homes. Results Gym at 315 G St. SE used to be Giddings School. It was purchased by investors for $1.8 million, according to the book, and opened as a gym in 2001.

Edmonds School at 901 D St. NE has become the main office of the D.C. Teachers Federal Credit Union. A couple of other former public schools have turned into charter or private schools.

Dennis has started researching a second book that looks at other buildings on Capitol Hill.

“Originally I thought I’d encompass all converted buildings,” she said. “But then I found that the schools sort of took on a life of their own.”

Information on the book is available at capitolhillconverted.com.