Dunbar High School Opens With Problems

No, not the one just built. The one built in the 1970s. Yes, the ridiculously ugly, brutalist, Soviet-looking building known as Dunbar High School.

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Dunbar High School
Dunbar High School

Here’s an article we dug up from the Washington Post, printed on April 13th, 1977.

A $20.6 million building for Washington’s Dunbar Senior High School opened yesterday, an expensive monument of hope in one of the city’s poorest areas and a focus of controversy about its architecture and school traditions.

The air-conditioned school, at New Jersey Avenue and N Street NW, has large “open space” rooms with few walls and few windows, a 90-foot-high central tower, escalators, and an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool.

It replaces a turreted red-brick building at the other end of the same city block that was built in 1916 as the city’s only academic high school for blacks.

Until 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down school segregation, Dunbar was a strictly academic school, drawing the brightest black youngsters from throughout the city and sending about 80 per cent of them on to college.

Dunbar since has become a neighborhood high school, drawing its students from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. It has the same difficult problems of discipline, absenteeism and low academic achievement that beset schools in big city slums throughout the country.

Yesterday, as the new building opened, principal Phyllis Beckwith announced, “We have been second-class citizens too long. Now we have a building that’s first-class, and we must have pride in it.”

But about 20 per cent of the students were absent on opening day, which was the first day after Easter vacation.”

In early afternoon, the escalators stopped running, and Mrs. Beckwith said they had been turned off by student pranksters.

“It is your buddies, your classmates, your peers who are doing this,” she announced over the loudspeaker. “If they do this again, you will be walking the rest of the week. I am very, very disappointed. We do not want people here who do not know how to appreciate this building.”

Later she told the students: “Despite the escalator incident, most of you have been doing beautifully.”

Most of the students themselves seemed enthusiastic about the new school, although some were confused by its unusual design.

“It’s No. 1, man,” said Norman Williams, a 16-year-old sophomore. “It’s the baddest structure in the District and in Maryland and Virginia, too. It’s a mean building, man. It’s mean.”

Williams explained that he means the building is first-rate.

The open-space design at Dunbar is warmly welcomed by some teachers as a way to encourage individualized teaching techniques and to cut down on discipline problems by doing away with the halls where trouble-making often occur.

Others, though seem concerned about increased noise and distraction. To meet their complaints, several floors have been divided up by partitions. the partitions however, stop about 18 inches below the ceiling and are open at the corners. By yesterday afternoon, some teachers already had moved file cabinets into the corners of their classroom areas to try to make them more private.

The new building also has caused unhappiness among some Dunbar alumni who won a court injunction last month blocking the demolition of the old Dunbar building, which was scheduled to make way for a track and football field.

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t see a lot of people shedding tears at the demolition of this ugly building.

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  • T. Harris

    I have read numerous articles regarding the design of the 1977 building resembling that of Soviet style structure and likening the design to that of the 1950 – 1970 era brutalist architecture. I have have also listened to numerous amounts of commentary from Mayor Gray, the Dunbar Alumni who attended the 1916 building, and the current principal of the school, who never attended ANY D.C. Public School. First, I will state that I am a graduate of the 1977 building. During my tenure at this building referred to as a prison by those in opposition of it, I felt free and obtained a quality education. My accomplishments after attendance at the ill referred building include military service, two masters degrees, and current enrollment in a PhD curriculum. I put my credentials up for match against any who are opponents of the 1977 building. Statements made referencing the non-functionality of open space classrooms are, and continue to be made by those who have no reference other than that of hearing others mention as such. I spent my Dunbar years in an open space environment plus most of my elementary school years. The open space environment did not impede my education in the least bit. In fact, I finished near the top of my class in the elementary and Dunbar open space experience. The aforementioned credentials and experience is shared by many others who have graduated from the 1977 building.

    The references to the design being that of Soviet architecture equally appall me. I looked for resemblances of the 1977 building to that of the Kremlin buildings. I see no resemblance what so ever. The 1977 building became a prison when the idiot contractors came in and erected walls in the building. Many of the alumni who did the final walk-through of the building were horrified by the “cell block H” look as a result of the wall erection and the ridiculous yellow paint. The current principal has gone on record by stating that this building was a prison. That being the case he, by default, was the warden and crypt keeper.

    The new structure is a site to behold – no argument there. The 1916 building has sentimental value to those who attended – Understandable. I have 2 siblings who graduated from the 1916 building. I am the first in my family to graduate from the 1977 building.

    Those who think ill of the 1977 building need to take a timeout and realize that the 1977 building has sentimental value to many of us who called this place home during our high school years. Yes, I did shed many tears at the razing of this building. This experience was shared by many others who attended this building.

    Let’s realize that one person’s junk may be another person’s treasure!