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Developer resumes work on Franklin School project after agreeing to reinstall historic fabric

In 2018, workers removed legally protected materials from the building, which is being turned into a museum

The Franklin School
Getty Images

A development team spearheaded by philanthropist Ann Friedman has recommenced work on the Franklin School, a landmarked and vacant building in downtown D.C. that the team is transforming into the city’s first-ever language-arts museum. The restoration work kicked off again in early January, nearly four months after District officials issued a stop-work order on the project. Last August, workers removed legally protected interiors from the 1869 building.

It is still unclear just how that happened, despite a public roundtable that the D.C. Council’s committee of the whole held on the matter on Tuesday. But the developer—Franklin School Development LLC—in December was cleared by the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to continue the rehabilitation work. Earlier that month, Friedman signed a memorandum of agreement with local and federal agencies, acknowledging that her team had “removed significant amounts of historic fabric from the Franklin School” without proper building permits and before a required historic preservation review process was done.

The ousted materials include “all original plaster wall and ceiling finishes in the classrooms; several original brick structural walls including former classroom and cloakroom walls; all historic wainscoting except for a small section on the third floor main hall; the majority of the baseboard, picture-rail and related trim; all pressed tin ceilings; the ceiling and floor structure above the third floor; and large areas of flooring,” says a copy of the agreement obtained by Curbed. D.C.’s State Historic Preservation Office, the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Park Service, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also signed it. Architect Adolph Cluss designed the Franklin School, which the District owns.

Executed on Dec. 10, the agreement sets out several replacement and mitigation measures for the remainder of the project. All of the remaining historic fabric must be “retained and restored in place for continued use in Planet Word,” the planned language-arts museum. A number of features—including in the building’s former classrooms, administrative spaces, galleries, and great hall—must be recreated. The agreement also specifies how the local and federal agencies are to consult Friedman’s development team on any design modifications, and stipulates that the National Capital Planning Commission will visit the site each month.

In a statement on Tuesday, Friedman said she regretted that unpermitted work took place and is committed to ensuring that it does not happen again. “I am delighted that our work to rehabilitate the Franklin School has resumed and eagerly anticipate reopening the doors of this iconic building to the Washington, D.C. community as Planet Word Museum,” she said. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration chose Friedman as the developer for the site in 2017.

Rebecca Miller, the executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Preservation League, which has been monitoring the redevelopment project, testified at the Council’s roundtable and called for the “highest financial penalty possible” for the damage. She estimated that this would be roughly $8,000, characterizing that figure as “just the cost of doing business when you have a multimillion-dollar project.” Miller said in August she repeatedly contacted DCRA, which issues building permits and is supposed to police illegal construction, but did not get a reply.

An illustration of the developer’s plans for a replicated classroom
D.C. government/Franklin School Development LLC

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who presided over the roundtable, questioned D.C.’s state historic preservation officer, David Maloney, about how his office and DCRA found out about the damage, and why DCRA took more than a week to issue a stop-work order. (DCRA was not present at the roundtable.) Maloney said the project’s architect, who was “mortified” at the time, in mid-August disclosed the damage to his office, and then his office told DCRA.

“Of course, it does not make up for the removal of the historic fabric that occurred,” Maloney said of the agreement. “There’s no question about that.” He added that the project’s architect later informed D.C. historic preservation officials that the protected materials had been sent to “landfills in Maryland and Ohio”—after which stage a staffer for Maloney’s office called a Maryland landfill. “[He] was told by the operator that essentially materials are processed the same day they come in, so once it hits the landfill it’s gone the same day,” Maloney explained.

On Aug. 30, the development team and the official agencies, including DCRA, went to the Franklin School. “That was the first opportunity that we had that everyone could go in the building at the same time,” Maloney told Mendelson. DCRA issued its stop-work order on Sept. 4. A spokesman for the department says this transpired “once an inspection of the property was completed,” and that the inspection was “coordinated” with other agencies.

Beyond the stop-work order, it remains to be seen whether D.C. will fine the development team. Maloney said a fine worth only several thousand dollars would be “small” given the total cost of the project (previously estimated to be about $50 million), and that the cost of recreating the historic fabric is “significant.” Asked by Mendelson how anyone could be confident that the destruction of historic material would not happen again, Maloney responded: “I don’t know that any of us can answer that question.” He added that the agreement with the development team was the most practical way to mitigate the damage and restore the Franklin School’s character-defining elements.

Mendelson recessed the roundtable to a later date so that DCRA could participate in it. The spokesman for the agency says “we will work with the Council and the committee to ensure they have the information they need.” A spokeswoman for Mendelson says the committee is likely to roll the Franklin School saga into a DCRA oversight hearing already set in February.