Dunbar High School Revives Honored History

WASHINGTON — With its vast legacy of academic excellence and unprecedented leadership, the historic Dunbar High School is celebrating the opening of its new school building. Washington, D.C.-based EE&K Architects + Engineers (a joint venture between Perkins Eastman, Setty Associates International and SK&A Structural Engineers) designed the $122 million school, aiming for LEED Platinum, and construction was led through a joint venture between Smoot Construction, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and Providence, R.I.-based Gilbane Building.

As the first public high school for African American students in the nation, Dunbar began its incredible history in a church basement in 1870. It has since grown to produce scores of notable African American leaders and, with its new construction, now stands as a monument to generations past while looking into the future.

“We wanted our building in many ways to build upon the past and show the students you’re not just in any school — you’re in Dunbar High School,” said Perkin Eastman’s Sean O’Donnell, principal-in-charge. “There are eight people associated with Dunbar High School that are on U.S. postage stamps. You’re part of this legacy and lineage of remarkable accomplishment.”

The site of Dunbar High School has now seen the construction of a new school three separate times. The classic architecture of the 1917 Dunbar building was demolished in the 1970s to build the most recent Dunbar High School. The building, which closed a street once utilized by the community, was virtually windowless, lightless and airless, O’Donnell said. The structure and design of the 1976 building ultimately created a divide between the iconic school from the surrounding community.

“We wanted to celebrate that because in some ways the 1976 in many ways tried to erase the history by demolishing its predecessor,” O’Donnell said.

In contrast, the new building is open and visually connected to the neighboring environment, O’Donnell said, inciting reinvigorated pride in school and its commitment to high-quality education. Additionally, the once-closed street is now reopened as a green street for the community to enjoy.

“By building on tradition but doing it in a modern way, this helps reassert the prominence of its academic programs,” O’Donnell said.

The new building is essentially on the footprints of the 1917 building, described by O’Donnell as a gorgeous piece of classic architecture, and utilized such classic elements as bay windows and towers reminiscent of the first building.

The interior also showcases notes of the past, for example, with the recreation of the armory. The armory of the 1917 building served as a training space for ROTC students, but was also a beloved social hub for the community. Now, the armory will continue where it left off as a central gathering place for both students and the community. The two-story armory, which has an abundance of natural light and views, will also serve as an extended informal learning space equipped with a food court and areas for small group learning.

“We’re honoring tradition while looking forward into the 21st century,” O’Donnell said.

With such honored alumni ranging from celebrated musicians to prominent government officials, the architects wanted to visibly showcase the former students who grew to greatness.

“We came up with a plan to integrate and celebrate those people within the very fabric of the building,” O’Donnell said.

There are 200 plaques in Dunbar High School, half of which are filled with portraits and photographs of distinguished alumni and half remain empty as inspiration to students.

“The idea is that you’ll see yourself on that plaque one day,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell hopes the new Dunbar High School becomes a strengthened resource to the community while standing as a visual entity of the outstanding tradition it holds.

“It will also be a catalyst because this is a community that’s in transition from kind of a tough neighborhood,” O’Donnell said. “We’re hoping that this building, by not being a fortress, by being open and engaged with the community, will inspire a larger renewal of the community around it.”