The Pierce School, which is now apartments.  Image by Google Maps.

Over the past two decades, turning old school buildings into homes has become increasingly common. Pierce School Lofts, at Maryland Avenue and G Street NE, has one of the most colorful histories, having served as a segregated school, venue for dogfights, and homeless center before becoming luxury loft apartments.

Named for President Franklin Pierce, the schoolhouse was built in the mid 1890s at 1375 Maryland Avenue NE. Its stately brick exterior, detailed cornice, and even the font spelling out Pierce School are hallmarks of Washington schoolhouses from the era.

The school building was converted into nine loft apartments during the early 2000s. Many original architectural features remain, augmented by high end modern amenities.

The three story building is unusually proportioned. The symmetrical entrance is a modern interpretation of classical measurements, with a centered entrance and sharply angled pediment (the triangular upper area above the building’s main door). Classical symmetry is abandoned at the building’s corners, where a tower is placed on just one side of the building.

The building’s red brick, typeface, and tower can be found on other city schools, including the Fillmore School and nearby Logan School, which was transformed into condos. Most of the city’s historic schoolhouses are red brick, although many have more traditional or massive designs than Pierce School.

The uniformity of schoolhouse architecture masked the inequality within them. Pierce School was built for white students, as school segregation in Washington stretched back into the 1800s. Only fifty years later, the school became a black school after the neighborhood’s demographics shifted.

This building wasn’t always apartments, but it wasn’t always a school either

By the 1970s the school was no longer in operation. It lay vacant for some years, during which time the Washington Post reported that it was “a haven for drug users while the schoolyard was used for dog fights.”

It was eventually used as a homeless center, until it was sold to developers Jeff Printz and Chris Swanson in 2000 for just $275,000. The duo completed an extensive renovation in 2004. Their project was one in a large wave of schoolhouse conversions stemming from the District’s program of selling its surplus during the 1990s. The schoolhouse surplus is partially a result of decades of segregation.

Some remnants of the school days have withstood the test of time

Many historic features were left intact during the building’s transformation. These include chalkboards, lockers, and holes from where children’s desks were bolted to the walls. Modern luxury amenities like high ceilings, a black bottom pool, and communal movie theater helped distinguish the project from similar conversions.

Despite the building’s nine units being fully occupied, the property has since changed hands and is for sale again by Evers & Company Real Estate.

More than a dozen similar schoolhouses have been similarly transformed from public schools to high-end residences. Developers realized that the schoolhouse, with its already divided rooms, many of which are well lit and spacious, is a natural form to be converted into small living units. It may be simpler than converting industrial buildings, which often are a blank slate for division into units but may be poorly lit.

There is some irony in the trend of transforming a public building into an exclusive and expensive one. While in retrospect it would be nice to suggest affordable housing advocates acquire and reconfigure these properties for low-income or homeless individuals, it is too late.

Nonetheless, it would be a thoughtful gesture for future adaptive reuse of these schoolhouses to include plans to include some of the public, whether that means having affordable units or creating a mixed-use development with a children’s arts space on the ground floor. Perhaps the new owner of the Pierce School Lofts will invite local children to a monthly movie showing in the building’s theater.

Tagged: architecture, dc

Jacqueline Drayer is the Outreach and Grants Manager at the DC Preservation League.