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D.C. forces work to halt on historic Franklin School redevelopment after alleged damage

Officials and preservationists visited the site last week to assess the situation

The Franklin School, at 925 13th St. NW
The Washington Post/Getty Images

The District has issued a stop-work order on the $50 million redevelopment of the Franklin School, a publicly owned historic building downtown that developers are transforming into the city’s first-ever language arts museum, after officials discovered that legally protected interiors had been removed from the building during renovation work.

On Tuesday, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs placed the order on the project, citing “illegal construction/working without a permit.” That determination usually means a developer has to pay a fine of 50 percent of the cost of the permit they should have obtained for the work performed, although developers can appeal stop-work orders.

It’s unclear how long the project will be delayed. Called Planet Word, the planned museum is scheduled to open in late 2019 and is the brainchild of philanthropist Ann Friedman. The development team originally included Friedman and Dantes Partners, which has developed several affordable housing projects in the District, but the latter dropped out at some point.

In a statement, Friedman calls the Franklin School “an iconic artifact” of D.C.’s history, but does not specifically address the historic preservation laws governing the property. “I’m honored to be entrusted with its restoration and am committed – as I have been throughout the life of this project – to working with all stakeholders, including relevant federal and city agencies, to preserve the historic integrity of this beautiful building,” she says.

A permit that the city issued this past June approved work on the building’s foundation, public records show. But at some point, workers allegedly took out many of the Franklin School’s historic finishes, including most of the wainscotting, or wood paneling.

Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner, whose office selected the development team in 2017, notes in a statement that officials decided a stop-work order was “the best course of action” after completing “a thorough investigation” into the project.

“The Bowser Administration is working with the development team to remediate the issue and put proper controls in place to continue the transformation of Franklin School into a world-class museum in the heart of the District,” says Kenner.

Designed by Adolph Cluss, the Franklin School was built in 1869 and is now a District and national landmark. It has been vacant since 2008 and previously served as a homeless shelter. Preservationists and officials visited the site last Thursday to assess the situation.

The Washington Business Journal was the first to report on the damage and the stop-work order. The paper also obtained an Aug. 30 letter to Friedman in which the District’s state historic preservation officer, David Maloney, said preservationists were weighing “remedial actions” and that many of the materials removed from the building could not be retrieved.

The would-be museum promises interactive exhibits, classrooms, a great hall, a restaurant, and an auditorium. The Franklin School is located at 925 13th St. NW, near Franklin Square.

This post has been updated with comment from Friedman and Kenner, and to reflect that Dantes Partners is no longer part of the project.