Moody Nolan key partner in DC high school’s metamorphosis

An historic high school in Washington, D.C. has a new lease on life, thanks to Moody Nolan and Perkins Eastman, who collaborated on a design that honors the school’s history while bringing it into the modern age.

Dunbar Senior High School is featured in the “Schools of the 21st Century” section of Architectural Record, which describes the school’s metamorphosis from its second incarnation – a concrete brutalist-modern style structure that towered over the neighboring homes – to what is now a model of modern school design.

The new structure, which opened in August, retains its historic connection to the neighborhood and its namesake, famed African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, while incorporating modern features such as solar components, natural light and at a lower scale to match the neighborhood.

Beginning in 2008, Jon Guldenzopf, Moody Nolan’s senior designer and associate principal, spent one day each week in Washington, collaborating on the drawings and elevations with Perkins Eastman and two other Moody Nolan associates.

“The team knew the Dunbar project was special from the start,” Guldenzopf said.

“It’s an historically African-American high school named after Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was a very influential poet,” he explained. “At one time it was one of the strongest African-American high schools in the nation, graduating many business and government leaders.”

Founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the school began in a church basement. It took its modern name in 1916 when the school moved into a Tudor-style, red-brick building on the current site.

In the late 1970s the original building was torn down and a cast-concrete, fortress-like structure erected nearby. It never quite fit with the neighborhood and cut off the historic O Street, which ran through the site.

“We haven’t rebuilt it exactly as it was (in 1916), but there is a lot of the look, feel and scale of the old building,” Guldenzopf said. “Bringing back the armory – a wide-open space as you enter the building – was a key feature. The building makes use of available daylight and solar panels on the roof.”

Other key features include a cutting-edge theatre design that places a glass wall behind the stage and can provide a window onto the neighborhood or be closed with curtains or panels.

“The theatre has wood-lined panels that create the baffles, and the acoustic quality and the finishes are excellent,” Guldenzopf adds. “And then there’s this glass window that looks out to the houses in the neighborhood. We have never been able to get a client to do this before, and it is just beautiful.”

With the new project, O Street was restored as a pedestrian walkway. “That’s also a big plus,” Guldenzopf says. “Restoring the historic L’Enfant grid.”

Now, the real work begins: educating a next generation of high school students to match the excellence for which the school was once known.