Dunbar High School, Washington DC
Architect: Moody Nolan Architects
Name of Project: Paul L. Dunbar Senior High School
Location: Washington, DC
Square Footage: 280,000
Role: Co-Design Architect
Located in the midst of the street grid of a historic city, the new Dunbar Senior High School provides a high performance learning environment designed to catalyze the renewal of one of our most historic schools. Founded in 1870, this school was the country’s first high school for African-Americans and its alumni include people of extraordinary accomplishment. The design challenge was to create a facility that honors the past and the present and overcomes the challenges of the site, all while looking to the future.
The design is inspired by a historic and cherished 1917 building that served the school before its demolition in the 1970s. Like its historic predecessor, the new building reengages the community by establishing an inviting civic presence and by reopening a closed street as a sustainable model. The program is organized into several discrete elements, such as the front entry, the academic wing, the library or media center “temple” and the sports/performing arts wing. These separate parts are organized by a larger, multi-purpose space or “public room” which harkens back to the main gathering space of the 1917 building. This space, known as the “Armory,” is used for diverse activities such as school dances, fund-raising dinners, alumni events and community forums. Each of the adjacent program wings opens onto the Armory and circulation to and from the daily activities of the school activates the space.
The design also carefully engages the surrounding context and neighborhood through entry locations, views and vistas, always providing for the students and staff a sense of connection, both real and conceptual, to the community. Community members and neighbors can easily see into the school and a subtle sense of security is enhanced through glass and vistas. More specifically, the main entry faces an existing park to the south, enhancing the security of both the school front door and the park, via increased activity and subtle surveillance. The park serves as a proper “forecourt” to the school, enhancing its presence and providing long distance views to the new front door, enhancing the civic presence of the school. In return, the front door of the school provides a civic scale facing the park, drawing the park into the ensemble or the greater campus.
This sense of seamless connection to the context is enhanced by opening up the street closed due to the construction of the 1977 building. The new (old) street connects to the existing historic network of streets and sidewalks and greatly enhances mobility in the neighborhood with two-way traffic and sidewalks, as well as providing greater connectivity and mobility for diverse modes of transportation throughout the community. As a pilot project between city agencies and a local environmental trust, thirty-nine bio-retention cells or rain gardens line the new street and demonstrates the multiple benefits of sustainable, low-impact development technologies including flood reduction and water quality improvements. The new design for the street will be used as a teaching tool for both environmental science and sustainability.
The material palette chosen for the project reflects the color and character of public buildings in the community and provides a distinctive form and scale at the entry and on other facades which helps to identify the building as an important new civic institution for the community. As such, the complex is also designed so that community members are able to use facilities such as the pool, gym, and auditorium during hours the school is not in use, thereby providing an additional amenity to a community in need of community facilities.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the design with respect to the Charter is the recognition that a world-class learning environment for 1,100 students is possible on 8.5 acres of land. Unlike sprawling suburban models, the vertical organization of a four-level high school can fit seamlessly into an urban neighborhood of row houses and bring along with it a notable civic scale and character.