SAH Blog

  • Innovation and Institutional Memory at Dunbar High School by Amber N. Wiley

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    Jun 22, 2012

    by Amber N. Wiley

    In December 2010 Adrian Fenty, then mayor of Washington, D.C., announced the highly anticipated plans for the re-design of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. The Office of Public Education Facilities Management (OPEFM), a city agency created in 2007 to fulfill campaign promises for a complete overhaul of the school system, had conducted two design competitions in two years with the hopes of selecting a winning design for the Dunbar building. During the course of the two competitions firms the caliber of Foster + Partners, Adjaye Associates, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners submitted designs for the twenty-first century manifestation of the high school.

    How did this design competition for a public high school become such a high profile event? Was it Washington politics as usual, showboating on the part of the mayor and city government, which had grappled with bad press on the state of the education system in the nation’s capital? What was at stake here?

    Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the first municipally funded public high school in the nation for blacks, was founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth. [1] The school moved numerous times during the next twenty-one years, housed in makeshift locations until finally settling at M Street between First Street and New Jersey Avenue, N.W., where the first substantial building for the school was constructed. It was rededicated as the M Street School and remained there for twenty-five years.

    In 1916 a new building was erected in response to the growing student body – the design of the school building by municipal architect Snowden Ashford was a testament to the hopes and wishes of its community. Ashford was credited with more experience building and maintaining schools than any other architect of the early twentieth century. [2] One critic later noted that because Ashford did not discriminate in design “Washington's black schools were separate but truly equal to their white counterparts.” [3] The three-story building employed Tudor references with a running parapet along the roof and a central fortified tower on the facade, and contained large windows and a ventilation system. On January 17, 1916 the new M Street High School was renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in honor of the deceased poet.

    Throughout segregation, and despite overcrowding over the years, Dunbar High School flourished, upholding the high tradition of its predecessor the M Street School. Dunbar’s academic success was born out of racial discrimination during the era of segregation – its concentration of highly educated black teachers, some of whom held doctorates, were denied employment at other educational institutions. This misfortune turned out to be a blessing for students who were guaranteed a first-rate education at Dunbar.

    As a result of the commanding faculty, combined with a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, Dunbar sent many of its graduates to a number of prominent colleges, including Howard, Amherst, Williams, Oberlin, Radcliffe, Smith, Harvard, Vassar, and Yale. [4] Some of the better-known graduates of Dunbar include  Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the United States Army, and innovator in blood plasma research Dr. Charles Drew. Suffragist Mary Church Terrell and educator Anna Julia Cooper, one of the first black women to receive a Ph.D., both taught at the school. Cooper also served as principal of the M Street High School for the school from 1902 to 1906.

    Desegregation and a population shift stemming from the Second Great Migration played a major role in the perceived decline of Dunbar as a leading educational institution. While the process of desegregation did not change the racial demographic of Dunbar’s students, due in part to a Board of Education clause that stated students were prohibited from attending schools outside their neighborhood residential boundaries, it did dramatically change the socioeconomic status of the students. The academic change within Dunbar High School was more drastic than its physical transformation as the school’s prestige began to diminish. The school slipped from high rankings and association with Washington’s African American upper-middle-class in the 1950s to ultimately being characterized as "a failing ghetto school" by conservative economist Thomas Sowell in 2002. [5]

    After the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency collaborated with the Model Inner City Community Organization (led by Walter Fauntroy) in an effort to revitalize the school’s neighborhood while combatting the increasingly negative reputation of the school and its facilities. The new $17 million Dunbar High School constructed in 1977 by Bryant & Bryant was both a high-rise and open-plan school. The success of open-plan schools was particularly dependent on the correct implementation of their design with new teaching methods that worked to complement the specially configured spaces, innovative furnishings, and carpeting. Teaching methods included team teaching, modular teaching, and non-graded levels of instruction that emphasized the individuality of each student’s learning processes.

    Washington Post  architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt praised the new design noting “its brick and mortar arrangement does away with the confining, authoritarian rigidity of the old egg crate classrooms and recognizes that the constant in our time is change, that education is a fluid process.” [6] The design was the most ambitious, avant-garde, and expensive for a public school in the metropolitan area, costing more than four times the amount estimated to bring the 1916 building it replaced up to code. [7] The ahistorical approach to the new design signified a rejection of the past and a focus on contemporary and future needs, revealing the strong disconnect between past accomplishments and the state of the institution in the 1970s.

    The competition-winning design announced by Mayor Fenty in December is by the team Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn and Moody-Nolan. In many ways, it resembles the 1977 building it replaces: it is at the forefront of contemporary design practices for educational facilities, it incorporates flexible learning spaces, and it intends to re-define monumentality in a modern context.

    The new school differs in its embrace of the past and historical figures associated with the institution. Yet in the 120 years since the erection of the M Street School facilities, the institution has been housed in three different buildings, and by 2014 the number will be increased to four. The constant reincarnation of Dunbar every thirty years strikes at the heart of the institutional memory of the school, creating a fractured narrative of the nation’s first high school for blacks. Additionally, the tradition of politicians and activists using Washington public schools as experimentation grounds for policy and architecture leads to a repetitive cycle of high design, incompetent maintenance, and destruction.

    Dunbar is a particularly worthwhile case study because of the historical association of great accomplishment that continuously pushes its innovative designs. Here, the grand posturing of the school’s architecture reveals an insecurity about the academic and cultural climate of the institution today, and the belief that architecture does have the power to redirect the course of a school that has depleted and fractured institutional memory.

    -- Amber N. Wiley

    Notes

    1  U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for M Street High School  2.

    2  See Kimberly Prothro Williams, “Schools for All: A History of DC Public School Buildings 1804 – 1960,” District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office (2008).

    3  S. J. Ackerman,  “Architect of the Everyday,”     Washington Post  , November 6, 2005.

    4  Jervis Anderson, “A Very Special Monument,”  New Yorker  (March 20, 1978): 93, 100.

    5  Thomas Sowell, “The Education of Minority Children,” in  Education in the Twenty-First Century  , ed. Edward P. Lazear (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2002), 79-92.

    6  Von Eckardt as quoted in Jervis Anderson, “A Very Special Monument,”  New Yorker  (March 20, 1978): 111.

    7   Michael Kiernan, “Razing Fight Begins Anew,”  Washington Star  , February 28, 1975, B  1.

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  • Brooklyn breweries, by bike by Jonathan Massey

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    Jun 22, 2012

    by Jonathan Massey 

    Beer.

    You drink it. I drink it. Wikipedia proclaims it the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and suggests that it follows only water and tea in our collective liquid intake.

    But what about breweries? They hardly appear in architectural histories. Participating recently in the Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz got me thinking not only about this building type but also about the many modes and sites of historical research beyond the academy—the work of those amateur historians, enthusiasts, and other unpedigreed experts whose work intersects with that of professional historians to generate knowledge about architecture’s past.

    Breweries have been in the news a lot lately, as they are now the frequent sites of adaptive reuse in cities throughout the industrialized world. Among the most prominent are London’s Truman Brewery, Copenhagen’s Carlsberg Town, Perth’s Swan Brewery, Shanghai’s Union Brewery, and Zurich’s Löwenbräu complex. Mostly, these disused industrial complexes have been turned into venues for the exhibition of art, though some contain art production spaces, housing, retail, office, or other programs.

    There isn’t much when it comes to the history of breweries, however, beyond a few isolated accounts coming out of industrial archeology. The best sources turn out be home brewers, local history researchers, and tour guides--or at least one exemplary tour guide: Matt Levy , of Levys’ Unique New York. On a mild Sunday earlier this month I joined fifteen other cyclists for Matt’s four-hour bike tour of former breweries in the north Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick.

    From the mid-19th-century to the mid-20th, these onetime Dutch townships hosted a dense concentration of breweries run largely by German immigrants, along with no small number of bars, beer halls, and beer gardens. We biked around the city, visiting empty, reprogrammed, and redeveloped sites once occupied by Schaefer, Rheingold, Fallert, Huber, Ulmer, and other brands. We also stopped at some of the churches these beermakers built. The tour culminated at the avenue of crisp granite mausoleums that constitutes “Brewer’s Row” at Evergreen Cemetery. And while the focus was historical, we didn’t fail to stop and sample the output of Sixpoint Craft Ales Brooklyn Brewery , and other borough enterprises.

    It was a fine time.

    Some of the pleasure lay in finding historical insight infused with the affective charges that come from the physical activity of pedaling, the sensations of bicycle perception, and the metabolic enhancements of alcohol. Some came from the easy sociability of an ad-hoc cycling crew that mixed in different ways as we moved through different neighborhoods and tour stages. Some derived from the interactions the Blitz afforded me with architectural historians and history venues outside the nexus of universities and museums.

    The Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz was a work of passion and enterprise on the part of a Bushwick resident whose family business offers custom tours of New York City. It started at the City Reliquary , a storefront community museum that features oddball collections and offbeat events. Much of Matt’s information came from a 1976 volume self-published by Will Anderson, author of “From Beer to Eternity” among other titles. We were joined at the end by Donato Daddario , the Evergreen Cemetery gravedigger who has become the chief keeper of its history. And a television crew tracked us for a local cable show on Brooklyn businesses.

    It was a pleasure to join this network of enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and institutions brought together by their commitments to place and to its history. And, of course, to beer. 

     

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  • Digital research tools: a response by Dianne Harris

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    Jun 22, 2012

    I would like to thank Morgan Ng for his thoughtful comments about the ways in which developments in the digital humanities intersect with the work and interests of historians of the built environment. I share his enthusiasm for the many new tools that are available to us and that enhance our ability to effectively teach and conduct research on a wide range of topics. As the Editor-in-Chief for SAHARA, I would like to respond to Mr. Ng’s commentary with the hope of clarifying a few key points.

    First, SAHARA now contains close to 25,000 member-contributed images. About half of those have been shared with ARTstor as “Editor’s Choice” contributions to their digital library. Although that remains a relatively small number, SAHARA will grow substantially in the coming year through the bulk uploading of numerous significant collections contributed by our members. We hope to have closer to 100,000 images in SAHARA within the next 12 months. Moreover, SAHARA will become larger if our members contribute to it. I encourage Mr. Ng to help grow this important digital image archive  by adding his own images to the SAHARA collection and by encouraging his colleagues to do the same.

    Second, SAHARA is a complicated project, the product of the hard work and countless volunteered hours of many of our SAH colleagues. It has been an exciting experiment, one that has established a new model of collaborative partnership between librarians and scholars. Perhaps this facet of SAHARA remains invisible to some members, which is unfortunate, since it is one of the project’s greatest accomplishments and one for which it has gained much attention and acclaim across the humanities. It also sought to establish a new form of scholarly publishing since the images that are contributed to SAHARA are peer-reviewed and then “published” to the Editor’s Choice collection in ARTstor. Again, this facet is less visible, but it is an important aspect that distinguishes SAHARA from other digital image collections. It is true, therefore, that SAHARA is growing slowly. But unlike images in other collections, you can be certain that images you find in SAHARA are of a high quality and that they are accompanied by authoritative metadata. This may not matter to some scholars, but it does matter to many of us.

    Third, no one working in the digital image world imagines that scholars will ever perform “one stop shopping” for the images they use for teaching and research. The internet is full of amazing and useful websites that contain a vast array of primary source images from museum collections, archives, and the photographs that are uploaded by members of the public. SAHARA does not aim to fulfill the needs of every scholar. But it does, again, aim to provide high-quality, authoritative images contributed by SAH members who wish to share their images, their research, and their particular visual and scholarly perspectives, on architectural, landscape, and urban history.

    Fourth, SAHARA currently rests on a business model that is determined, in part, by parameters that are set by our technology host and partner and by the foundation that provided the funds for its creation.  We, too, hope to experiment with alternative business models that may allow some or all of SAHARA to become available to a wider audience in the future. At the moment, however, the project is bound by contracts that specify access policies. So the limitation of access is not determined by a desire for restricted access, but instead by complicated contracts that must be honored for the time being.

    Finally, I’m pleased to report that SAHARA is attracting considerable traffic, and seems to be a useful tool for many SAH members. The 2011 report from ARTstor indicates that  there were 119,671 image requests from SAHARA for this past year.  Like any new, innovative tool, it is a work-in-progress; it is imperfect. But with the support of members like Mr. Ng, I hope it will become a resource that serves SAH members for many years to come.

    -- Dianne Harris

    Editor-in-Chief, SAHARA

    President, Society of Architectural Historians 

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