Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.
The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It’s one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor’s center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor’s center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.
The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.
But until then, let’s take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.
I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.
The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, “Kind of eerie.”
Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.
Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote “V-BLOCK” with “Choppa City,” the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the “O.”
You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads “Ghost Town.” Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.
In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room’s four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, “Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother’s Club.”
On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, “Taylor Tucker,” remains alongside a note reading, “Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly.” In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, “The roof’s open!”
I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city’s skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.
Someone points to the Douglass house. “What’s that?” They ask.
I respond, “The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895.” I snap a few photos of Douglass’s mansion through the southside canopy.
"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don’t you think?” someone asks.
"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first,” replies another visitor, a contractor. “But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol.”
After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn’t he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.
Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as “cool,” the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.