On July 28, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) hosted a forum about 501 Eye Street SW. This vacant site, once the home of several enrichment organizations, has become a focus of divergent visions for Southwest. One would seek to retain the quiet, residential charm Southwesters have grown to love; the other would move Southwest toward a densely-built entertainment & cultural locus. The drama played out at Arena Stage.

Prelude: SWNA President Kael Anderson provided context for the discussion. Briefly: the Shakespeare Company has been in a due diligence period. Earlier this summer Shakespeare asked the Graduate School, the site’s property owner, to file a raze permit on the existing building to facilitate redevelopment. Following the filing, the ANC passed a resolution opposing demolition. However, the ANC’s resolution alone was unlikely to single-handedly stop the demolition process. At the same time, SWNA recognized the building was a potential National Historic Landmark so SWNA prepared and filed a landmark nomination. SWNA decided to put on this forum to better inform the community of the nature of the property and what is at stake in the development of this project, in the context of the overall evolution of Southwest.

First Act: Cecille Chen, chair of SWNA’s History Task Force provided a fascinating glimpse into the history of the site. The core of the building was built in 1948 as a clubhouse for the Metropolitan Police Boys Club No. 4. The club was organized to provide supervised recreation for children who would otherwise be forced to recreate on streets. The 8,000-square-foot facility was built by Leon Chatelain, Jr., the Washington Board of Trade’s president.

The Redevelopment Land Agency acquired the Boys Club during urban renewal. The building, one of the few spared from demolition was acquired by the Hawthorne School in 1961.

Hawthorne was a private co-ed secondary school. Relocating from Northwest DC, Hawthorne was the first independent school in the U.S. to move to an urban renewal area, and along with Amidon, was one of two new schools built in the SW renewal area. Hawthorne hired the renowned modernist architect Charles Goodman to design an addition to the north and south of the existing structure. Goodman chose the brutalist style, a subtype of post-war modernist architecture based on the shaped and molded forms of concrete. Goodman’s project didn’t go unnoticed: a 1964 Washington Post article titled “A Bulldozer Isn’t Always Needed” reported that “the transformation of an ugly duckling (perhaps a reference to the forthcoming Southwest Duck Pond) into a bold and vigorous design of exposed reinforced concrete will reflect the growing awareness of sensitive architects that demolition and new construction are not always the example in urban renewal…” Goodman’s use of brutalist devices such as concrete-rib screens appears to have anticipated many contemporary concerns about achieving energy efficiency through architecture.

Hawthorne eventually succumbed to financial troubles; in 1972 Southeastern University (SEU) bought the property. A generation later, SEU faced its own intractable financial challenges and announced a merger with the Graduate School USA. The merger was consummated in 2009, but not before SEU lost its accreditation and ceased operations. Subsequently the Graduate School embarked on a plan to continue fulfilling SEU’s niche at the site, but soon thereafter determined the building didn’t meet its requirements and put the property on the market.

Second Act: In a captivating tribute, Marjorie Lightman layered on the social development of the site, focusing on the innovative educational programs at Hawthorne and SEU. Hawthorne reinvented pedagogy. Whereas educational tradition was for the students to respond to the school’s pedagogical program, Hawthorne developed a program designed around the students’ needs. Classrooms were small with the exception of two tiered lecture halls arching around the teacher; both proved prescient. Hawthorne emphasized a historical approach to learning, inaugurating the now common approach of using primary sources where appropriate.

Hawthorne inspired the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and other private high schools, but it was a labor of love for the husband & wife founders/administrators. The move to 501 Eye Street ultimately proved fateful as the site was too small to accommodate the academic and extracurricular activities of an adequate student body size.

SEU began as a series of classes offered by the YMCA in 1879. In 1907, the Washington School of Accountancy was added to the University, and in 1923 the university incorporated by DC as the Southeastern College of the Young Men’s Christian Association of the District of Columbia. A 1937 Act of Congress provided a federal charter for the university and renamed the institution Southeastern University.

Congress called for a wide range of courses, schools, and degrees; over time many programs were added including liberal arts, business administration, transportation studies, and a law school. SEU gradually shifted to emphasize technical education. After community colleges were established in the neighboring jurisdictions, SEU focused on underserved populations by providing small classes, affordable tuition, subject expertise, and a supportive environment with an emphasis on linking education to employment. But SEU struggled to sustain a critical mass and adequate tuition rates at the 501 Eye Street site. The September 2001 terrorist attacks proved to be the final blow.

Third Act: Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Managing Director Chris Jennings spoke about their program and redevelopment vision. Currently, they have a number of leased facilities in DC that they are looking to consolidate at one site. Leases are expiring at some of the sites, and they want to protect themselves from future rental rate increases.

Shakespeare’s program involves administrative offices for 50 employees, costume storage, a small fabrication shop, rehearsal spaces, education studios (classrooms) and 28-30 units of actors’ housing. In total, Shakespeare needs about 75,000 square feet of floor space to meet their needs. 45,000 square feet would be built underground, and 30,000 square feet would be built above ground, which would comprise the first two floors of the building. The existing SEU building, with two above-ground floors and a basement level, provides 70,000 square feet of floor space, but according to Shakespeare, the configuration of the existing spaces would not meet its needs. To subsidize construction of a new building, Shakespeare partnered with a commercial developer, Erkiletian. Erkiletian desires to build an additional 115,000 square feet of market-rate housing for a total of 145,000 square feet of above-ground floor space. A preliminary massing study envisioned a nine-story building.

Finale: A lively question-and-answer period followed that highlighted strong and diverse opinions about the proposed development. Residents who live in townhouses closest to the development site were most concerned about their homes being overshadowed by a tall building. Issues were raised regarding density-related problems, including lack of parking spaces and congestion. Many desired to see development of a site that for years had lain empty and neglected. Theater lovers spoke glowingly about Shakespeare’s work and enthusiastically welcomed their presence in the neighborhood. Others were curious about the possibility of getting behind-the-scenes glimpses of Shakespeare’s productions. A former ANC commissioner spoke about the historic significance of the planning and architecture of Southwest, advocating for a historic district to ensure that new developments would be compatible with Southwest’s unique urban fabric.

At the end of the evening, attendees expressed appreciation for SWNA’s efforts in bringing to light the interesting history of the SEU building. Many expressed satisfaction with the opportunity to hear first-hand about Shakespeare’s development plans, ask questions, and express concerns. Indeed, SWNA had organized this forum specifically to introduce Shakespeare to the community and provide an opportunity for the development team to hear feedback. Certainly, the community looks forward to further opportunities to engage with the Shakespeare team to forge a development plan that would allow Shakespeare to establish roots in the neighborhood in a manner consistent with the needs of our entire community.

By: Kael Anderson

SWNA President

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