Focus on the Future in Modernizing Woodrow Wilson High School
- D.C. Government
- United States of America
Woodrow Wilson High School ("Wilson"), the District of Columbia’s largest comprehensive high school, serves approximately 1550 students. Serving students from every ward and zip code in the city, Wilson prides itself on being a school of excellence, celebrating diversity. In recent years, its population has been approximately 50% African American, 25% European American, 17% Latin American and 8% Asian American.
The District is in the process of planning for the modernization of Wilson. That modernization offers an extraordinary opportunity for the community and city to make Wilson the model urban high school envisioned by Principal Pete Cahall.
Calls by some to preserve portions of the campus, outside of the main building ("the donut") and the cupola, are constraining the modernization team's ability to develop a Concept Plan that can optimally serve future students. The current focus of such calls is the Power Plant and chimney located by the entrance to the new Aquatic Center which, at best, serve as a monument to CO2 emissions.
Wilson's modernization will seek to reuse and repurpose existing parts of the campus where that approach makes sense. Wilson’s original 1935 main building, including the cupola, will be refurbished and revitalized to form the centerpiece of the eventual design. The courtyard of that structure will go from being a dingy unused, concrete space to a stunning atrium at the hub of a 21st century school.
The main donut that will be preserved and improved upon represents nearly 80% of the original construction. Mandating the retention of sections of the campus beyond the donut for the sake of historic preservation would, however, limit the possibilities of modernization unnecessarily.
Overemphasis on historical preservation for the Wilson modernization also does not make sense because much of the campus has already been significantly modified from its original form. Wilson’s roof and all its windows were replaced as part of essential maintenance. In some cases, portions of the original window settings were bricked over. Also, the original 1930’s campus structures are now bracketed by the flawed 1970’s addition and the new Aquatic Center and, inevitably, the modernized campus will include other new construction.
To realize Wilson’s full potential, its constituents and all parties engaged in the modernization process must acknowledge the past but focus on the future, making wise and considered choices that will provide Wilson’s students and its larger community with a smart, well-conceived facility that fully supports a first-rate educational program.
In that process two important Wilson historical legacies should be borne in mind.
First, Wilson was always intended to be a part of a community of public amenities. Its placement near Alice Deal Middle School on the boundary of Fort Reno Park is an example of early twentieth century planning principles that sought to cluster schools with other public amenities, like parks and playgrounds, to create community centers.
Second, Wilson enjoyed lower investment compared to other D.C. high schools at the time it was built. In the wake of the Great Depression, Congress cut the District’s school building program, and the construction of Wilson went forward on a reduced appropriation. As a result, Wilson did not receive some of the amenities provided to other D.C. high schools built in the preceding years. For example, the decorative detail at Wilson was simplified and, in some cases, less expensive materials were used. In another illustration of cost savings, the original auditorium and gymnasium buildings were placed on either side of the main building at grade, rather than at the same level as the main building, and linked by curved, single-story connecting “wings” which include stairs to negotiate the significant differences in elevations. The campus today occupies 11 different levels.
The 1970s brought the addition of a new gym on the north end of the campus and a pool building on the south end, but cost constraints again led to poorly functioning facilities. Eventually, the 1970's pool would be torn down and replaced with the new Aquatic Center after portions of one of the walls fell into the old pool.
The successful, intelligent, fully-funded modernization of Woodrow Wilson High School, building on the precedent of the magnificent new Aquatic Center, will make Wilson an exemplary public high school and a valued center of its community. That is the best way to fulfill the historical vision for the school and serve the next generation of Wilson students.
We understand that preservation concerns are playing a significant role in the formulation of a final Concept Plan for Wilson’s modernization.
We urge that historic preservation concerns be weighed in such planning but that the fundamental goal in the design of a Concept Plan for the school must be to serve optimally future generations of students and the community.
Under no circumstances should the Concept Plan preserve historic design flaws. Mistakes made in the 1930's and 1970's should not be treated as historic and worthy of preservation. Our goal must be to build a 21st Century School that honors its past but is built for the future.
The Focus on the Future in Modernizing Woodrow Wilson High School petition to D.C. Government was written by Wilson Management Corporation and is in the category Education at GoPetition.