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Historic Crummell School gets D.C. landmark status

(Published June 3, 2002)


Staff Writer

Ivy City, a gritty Northeast Washington neighborhood struggling for economic recovery, got a piece of its heart back on May 23 when the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously voted to give the former Alexander Crummell School landmark status.

"We thank God that others finally recognized the importance of this school building to our community," said Adrilla Howard, an alumna of the former elementary school on Gallaudet Street that was built in 1912 to educate black children.

The school was named for Alexander Crummell, a D.C. resident and a leading black intellectual and religious leader of the 19th century. It has been closed and vacant since 1977.

"The only invisible neighborhood in the city is invisible no more," said Arvie Parks, who as president of the Ivy City/Trinidad Civic Association spearheaded the drive for historic preservation status.

Before the May 23 vote, Parks said, Ivy City was the only neighborhood in the city without a single historically designated building.

But even as Parks celebrated with other Crummell supporters who had thronged the hearing room, they acknowledged that the building still faces an uncertain future.

It needs serious repair, and the city has identified no funds for its upkeep. Parks and others hope to transform the building into a citizen-run community center. But they are concerned that city officials seem to be favoring the avowedly well-funded plan of local nightclub owner Marc Barnes to buy the property and turn it into a "community center" run by his private company.

The site’s most pressing problem is that during the 1990s, even as civic association members pushed for a preservation hearing, thieves made off with the school’s original copper roof. Since then, rain has severely damaged the building’s interior.

"The building needs a new roof and new windows," as well as substantial interior work, said Tim Denee, a staff member for the Historic Preservation Review Board who prepared a report on the building. The school’s basic structure and distinctive architectural character remain intact, he said.

The graceful hip-roofed building, designed by Snowden Ashford, the District’s first municipal architect, is faced with warm, sand-colored brick and features an unusual brick, tile and stucco decorative frieze around its upper level. Another striking feature – a reminder of an earlier era – is the use of separate marked entrances for boys and girls.

At the hearing, the board ordered that the school be covered and secured to prevent further damage.

A city source estimated renovation costs at roughly $3 million to $4 million. But "there’s nothing in the budget now to redevelop that building," said Michael Lorusso, an official with the city’s Office of Property Management, which has administered the site since 2000.

Denee’s report argues that the loss of the building has been a serious blow to the Ivy City area. Without the structure in active use, the report says, "the community lacks a civic center or focal point." It notes that the former school’s central location in the neighborhood is similar to that of many towns’ courthouses.

The report says many residents cite the building’s closure as a factor in Ivy City’s decline, "stealing life from the neighborhood, ending (the school’s) community functions, and no longer providing an incentive for families to remain in the neighborhood."

Longtime residents at the hearing recalled that Crummell always served as more than a school. It hosted community meetings, such as those of the civic association – founded in 1911 and in continuous operation since – as well as Boy Scout meetings, holiday celebrations and other neighborhood events.

And simply as a school, many said, it was a powerful influence on generations of residents.

"All of the teachers were strict, but in a loving way," said Remetter Freeman, who attended Crummell in the 1930s and ’40s. "They taught us to be our best – and beyond that."

She said that today she passes that work ethic on to her grandchildren. "I tell them, if the teacher said to read to page 8, you read to page 10 or 12 – then the next day, when the class gets there, you’re all ready," she said.

Theodore Coates, another pre-World War II student, remembered that boys had to wear a handkerchief pinned to their lapels, and girls had to wear their hair pulled back by a ribbon.

Crummell, who lived from 1816 to 1896, was a free-born black Episcopal clergyman, a prominent abolitionist, a Howard University professor and the founder of the American Negro Academy, which has been called "the black think tank of his day." He was a mentor of W.E.B. DuBois and other prominent 20th century thinkers.

The building "is a sacred place," Parks said after the vote. "The things the Reverend Crummell did, in the times he lived in … you can’t repay that."

But the course toward putting the building back into community use is not yet clear.

Parks and others would like to see the building turned into a multi-use community center, offering computer training, job skills and other services.

But Scott Barkin, a staff member in the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, said last week that though he had met with community leaders proposing that idea, no funding for such a project exists in this year’s budget – or next year’s.

"Who’s going to pay for it?" he asked.

Barkin said city officials also have met with Marc Barnes, who late last year opened the huge new nightclub Dream directly across the street from the Crummell School site. Barnes has said he wants to buy the Crummell building outright and transform it into a privately run community center.

"It sounds great," Barkin said. "But we told him, ‘Show us community support. Show us short and long-term financing.’"

Barnes has support from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5B representatives Rhonda Chappelle, Kathy Henderson and Regina James. But Barnes’ recent suggestions that his center would be run solely by him have drawn opposition from another ANC 5B commissioner, George Jackson, and others interested in redeveloping the Crummell site.

At a recent ANC 5B public meeting, Barnes announced to residents that if he opened a "community center" in the building, he did not want direct involvement in its operations from the civic association or other local groups.

"I’m not interested in having to work through a bunch of red tape if I decide I want to plant some flowers," he said.

Jim Schulman, a community development activist who has been working with the civic association, interrupted Barnes from the audience. "That’s what community is," Schulman said.

"No," responded Barnes. "That’s not what I’m looking for."

Parisa Norouzi, a Friends of the Earth representative who has worked with the civic association on Crummell matters, is among the people alarmed by Barnes’ plans and the perception that he has the ear of city officials.

"Here is cherished public property, and it’s been totally neglected by the city," she said. "But while the community’s concerns are being ignored, special interests are being listened to."

Norouzi pointed to recent reports in The Common Denominator that since early this year, Barnes has been using the sizable piece of property on which the Crummell building sits for a lucrative valet parking operation connected to his nightclub. Barnes has said he had the city’s permission to use the land; city officials have said that for several months, Barnes was using the land without its knowledge or permission.

Barnes also made substantial alterations to the Crummell property, such as adding a driveway, an eight-foot perimeter fence and a building to house the parking business. Barnes has been fined at least $4,500 for making those alterations without a permit, for running a business without a license, and for other offenses.

In addition, David Maloney, acting head of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, said last week that Barnes’ alterations to the property appear to violate the city’s historic preservation statutes. Those laws’ protections apply to a building as soon as historic preservation status has been applied for and extend to the grounds, Maloney said.

Nonetheless, Lorusso said last week, the city’s Office of Property Management recently gave Barnes a month-to-month lease for use of the site to continue his parking operation.

Barkin, of the city planning office, said the city is not favoring Barnes. He said that if the city sells the Crummell property, it will probably be through competitive bidding.

"Our office has a general policy that we like to see a competitive process," he said.

Barkin said D.C. law allows the city, when it sells government-owned land, either to propose to the city council a competitive process or to present the council directly with what it considers an attractive offer.

Asked if his agency had indicated to Barnes or anyone else that it might be open to a single attractive offer for the Crummell property, Barkin replied simply, "No."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator