4400 Brooks Street, NE / 1300 44th Street, NE
Dear Mr. Anderson:
In its public meeting of 17 September conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a concept submission for the renovation of and additions to Smothers Elementary School, located at 44th and Brooks Streets, NE. Raising numerous issues requiring further consideration, the Commission did not take an action on the submission and provided the following comments for further development of the proposal.
In general, the Commission members identified a lack of clarity in what goals are driving the design decisions for this project, and they encouraged grounding the project with a positive design vision, rather than merely responding to problems and programmatic needs. They suggested that the guiding force could be an educational philosophy, a comprehensive tectonic expression, or the concern with sustainability and the environment. They supported the project’s intent to achieve a net-zero energy consumption for the school, but they observed that this ambitious goal would likely require more extensively developed design features than were apparent in the proposal.
For the architectural design, the Commission members expressed appreciation for the intent to preserve the historic school’s central multi-purpose room; however, they raised concern that the proposed addition on the east would block all of this room’s eastern windows. They suggested further study to avoid this outcome—perhaps repositioning the eastern addition to create a daylit atrium space adjoining the east wall of the multipurpose room, or possibly exchanging its program with the narrower classroom addition proposed to the west. They expressed general support for the proposed brick brise-soleil in front of the addition’s windows, commenting that this would be perceived as a distinctive feature of the school; however, they cautioned that the brise-soleil would be expensive and technically difficult to construct, and they encouraged careful study or the development of other options, possibly rethinking its random composition.
Regarding the site, the Commission members requested clarification of the design and access for the caged egress stair descending from the western addition, and they requested further study of the enclosure for the pre-kindergarten students’ play area, perhaps using a hedge instead of a fence to define the space. They questioned the proposal for extensive ramping and stairs to reach the new main entrance at the southwest, which would be elevated a full story above the adjacent sidewalk along the sloping site; instead, they suggested reconceiving what is now merely a functional solution to become a more engaging entrance experience that includes generous landings and seating areas, making it a focal feature of the site. Alternatively, they commented that the historic school’s center entrance is only slightly above the level of the adjacent sidewalk, and modest modifications could accommodate barrier-free access at this location, along with corresponding adjustments to the interior program disposition. They emphasized that any of these entrance solutions could provide the opportunity to celebrate the school’s namesake, Henry Smothers, a 19th-century teacher of the city’s African American students; they suggested exploring this theme as part of the overall design rather than relying on the addition of artwork at the end of the design process.
The Commission looks forward to further concept-level review of this project. Please coordinate the next submission with the staff which, as always, is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Keith A. Anderson, Director
D.C. Department of General Services
2000 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
cc: Edgar Moreno, DLR Group