January 31, 2023


Delighting home maniacs

A handsome Georgetown building started life as a vocational school

A handsome Georgetown building started life as a vocational school

John Irelan, Washington

The style of architecture known as Georgian is applied to buildings from 1714 to 1830, the time period spanning the reigns of the first four British Kings George. The building at 1640 Wisconsin was erected in 1911, when another George was on the throne: King George V.

So, call it neo-Georgian, though the nomination form for the Georgetown Historic District — of which the building is a part — describes it as Colonial Revival.

What sort of tenant would need such a handsome building in 1911? The District’s public school system.

There had been a school at that location since the 1860s. It was called the High Street School. (High Street was the original name for Wisconsin Avenue.) In March of 1911, a request for proposal went out from the District’s commissioners to build a new school on the site.

The contract for a two-story, six-classroom school went to Melton Construction, at a cost of $30,000 (or $42,000; sources vary). The school was designed by architect Thomas J.D. Fuller, under the supervision of the city’s own municipal architect, the wonderfully named Snowden Ashford.

In the 27 years Ashford spent working for the District — first as building inspector then as municipal architect — he oversaw the construction of 75 schools. A D.C. native, he had a preference for hiring D.C. architects such as Fuller. Ashford believed that schools should look good — he was active in a group called the League for the Decoration of Public Schools — and enjoy adequate light and ventilation.

Dubbed the Wisconsin Avenue Manual Training School, it was ready for occupancy in October 1911. F.A. Underwood, who had been a teacher of drawing at McKinley Manual Training School, was the first principal.

Manual training schools were for students not expected to go to college. This was not necessarily because it was believed they weren’t smart enough, but because they might need to start working right away to support their families.

“It was to catch these pupils and give them instruction which would start them on the way at least to a living wage that the trade schools were opened,” wrote one contemporary journalist. Ideally, manual school students would have completed at least the sixth grade.

The District’s schools weren’t desegregated until 1954, and the Wisconsin Avenue Manual Training School was for white students only: cabinet making and woodworking for the boys and housekeeping for the girls. There were some academic subjects, though mainly for practical purposes.

“The pupils are taught to design the things which they wish to make, and then figure out by the arithmetic which they have learned how much material will be needed,” wrote the Evening Star in 1913.

A story in the Star lamented that high school age girls seemed more interested in learning the latest dance steps than how to cook and clean: “The unusual situation is perplexing school authorities, and they are in a dilemma as to how to arouse the interest of the high school girls in things that probably will be of more use to them in later life than the latest shimmie evolutions.”

By 1920, girls in sixth, seventh and eighth grades came to Wisconsin Avenue from other schools for lessons in sewing and cooking.

In 1934, the role of the building changed again. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt had made surprise visits to some of the city’s public schools and found the food abysmal. The old training school became a central kitchen, borrowing large cooking vessels from the Army Quartermaster Corps until its own equipment could be purchased.

In 1954, the city sold the building to the Deigert-Yerkes architectural firm for its offices. It was also home to Kerr & Co., a furniture store. In the late 1970s, it became a school again: the private Parkmont School, which moved from McLean, Va.

In 1983, Parkmont sold the building to Wynmark Development, which renovated it into office space. It was home for a while to the Carley Capital Group and then the American College of Surgeons.

Today 1640 Wisconsin Ave. NW is the Washington office of the African Union.