Can “Planet Word”—an interactive museum of language—bring new life to a long-vacant historic D.C. building?
The Franklin School in downtown Washington, D.C., has sat vacant since 2008, but the city abandoned the building decades earlier. Designed by Adolf Cluss, the architect who built the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle and its Arts and Industries Building, the revival-style gem survived many efforts to demolish it. More recently, it’s been the focus of everything from mayoral redevelopment schemes to an Occupy demonstration in 2011.
Now another group will take a stab at the historic Franklin School. On Wednesday, the city announced plans to turn the building into a museum of linguistics. Led by philanthropist Ann B. Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman), “Planet Word” will be an interactive center dedicated to language arts, in the vein of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, according to the city. (Disclosure: Katherine Brittain Bradley, who sits on the board of Planet Word, is married to David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic Media company.)
Turning the Franklin School into a museum is a practical use for a gorgeous if quirky space. The building’s historical protections are so thorough they all but rule out a more intensive use. This is, in fact, the second time in just more than two years that a museum concept has won the city’s support for a rehabilitation plan for the building. A cultural use for the space is by far the best outcome: A great public building deserves a great public use. And a closer look at the Franklin School’s rocky road to reuse shows why giving over historic architecture to culture—certainly not the city’s first instinct—could also be in the best financial interests of D.C.
One reason the Franklin School has long sat vacant as the District’s downtown bloomed all around it is the splendor of the building itself. The architecture hails back to D.C.’s Red Brick City era, which Cluss penned nearly by himself. The architect helped to build D.C. up as an architecturally distinctive city in its own right, designing Eastern Market, Calvary Baptist Church, and dozens of other important red-brick buildings.
Many were not saved. As one of the most prominent examples of Cluss’s work, the Franklin School is a National Historic Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also one of about a dozen or so buildings whose interior also has preservation status—making it a poor candidate for adaptation as a luxury hotel or condo building.
In 2014, after years of dithering, the city went a different direction with the Franklin School. Under former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, the city picked a development partnership that planned to turn the Franklin School into the Institute for Contemporary Expression, a contemporary art and performance center. But when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser came into office the following year, she swiftly scrapped the city’s agreement and started the Franklin School bid process all over again.
The reasons behind that reversal fired up critics locally. Bowser argued in 2015 that fundraising by ICE-DC founder Dani Levinas was too weak to continue. But that fundraising effort had not yet begun. Emails obtained by CityLab under a Freedom of Information Act request show that officials from both the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development as well as the DowntownDC Business Improvement District urged the D.C. Council to confirm the ICE-DC program so that fundraising could begin in earnest. At the time, Levinas had already raised $3 million toward a $15 million goal—a decent start—but Bowser scotched the museum plan before the Council could consummate the deal.
Whatever the reason for the mayor’s about-face, the project’s new team has her support. Dantes Partners, the developer behind Friedman’s Planet Word concept, is a relatively young boutique firm that in recent years has developed hundreds of affordable and supportive housing units. (Buwa Binitie, the founder of Dantes Partners, is a Bowser supporter who contributed $10,000 to her former political action committee and joined her on a recent trip to China.) This new team also has the funds to execute their vision: Planet Word is going to cost more than $30 million, but Friedman won’t have to raise funds for it. According to the city, Planet Word will pay for itself upfront.
Finally, the new team has the technical know-how to do a delicate job. SmithGroupJJR, an architecture firm with a lot of historic rehabilitation and adaptation experience, will lead a renovation to rebuild the interior to include a maker space and classrooms as well as an auditorium in the building’s third-floor mezzanine level.
So what does one do at a linguistics museum? It’s not entirely clear yet. On the Planet Word site, founder Friedman invites future visitors to “[i]dentify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground.” The museum could potentially occupy the space once claimed by the now-defunct Children’s Museum as the D.C. institution with the kid-friendliest programming.
One thing is clear: Planet Word will definitely be unlike anything else in D.C.—or really anywhere. Contemporary art, the program for ICE-DC, might have been a more proven model for the city to choose. In recent years, spectacle-scaled art installations have commanded enormous attention here. The National Building Museum’s architectural follies, from “The Maze” to “The Beach,” draw capacity-straining crowds. More than 732,000 viewers piled into “Wonder,” an Instagram-ready affair at the newly refurbished Renwick Gallery. ICE-DC could have served as a permanent local home for such shows.
Crowds will be key to fixing Franklin Square, one of D.C.’s least-loved parks. Restoring this space (which is anchored by the Franklin School) is a perennial subject of conversation in the city. ICE-DC planned to host performances and happenings to draw in the office-lunch crowd; if “Wonder” and “The Beach” are any indication, the lines would have snaked around the square. If Planet Word comes up with a similar scheme to draw daytime foot traffic, it will have done the hardest work in revivifying Franklin Square, saving the city money in the long run and boosting the values of adjacent properties (which now include The Washington Post’s headquarters). A private use for the museum, say, as a tech incubator or boutique office space, would not make use of the unique affinity between Franklin Square and the Franklin School—a public space and a public building.
But will crowds really come for Planet Word? If the whole fun-with-linguistics concept doesn’t take off with locals, the museum might face the same tough sell as other non-Smithsonian downtown cultural centers (such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts) that are trying to lure tourists away from the National Mall. Unlike those local attractions, however, Planet Word will debut with one huge advantage: Entrance will be free.
It’s good that the city sees the wisdom (again) in preserving the Franklin School by turning it into a museum meant for residents. Planet Word is bound to do more for the Franklin School, and for the city, than any private building would have. When linguist nerds convene there to talk gerunds and hit up a nearby food truck—or when bored Posties amble over during a lunch break to learn a few things about dangling modifiers—they will be giving Franklin Square a use as well. For the city, a quality museum at the Franklin School is a two-for-one deal.