Duke Ellington School of the Arts
The Design-Build Team was challenged to transform this aging 1898 National Landmark through a comprehensive modernization and expansion program into a world-class facility that finally matches the school’s reputation as one of the nation’s premier High Schools of the Arts. The design finds the balance between restoring and respecting the historic fabric, while creating major new academic and performance venues. To accommodate the new technically sophisticated Arts programs, approximately 73,000 sf of outmoded secondary space was replaced with 175,000 sf of new construction. The remaining historic space was restored, renovated and adaptively re-used, expanding the 600 student facility to a total area of 265,000 sf.
The project challenges, constraints and opportunities were many and varied, and included:
Challenge: The National Landmark status of the building and the front lawn placed significant exterior restrictions on what could be removed, added, and restored, involving extensive collaboration (and negotiations) with multiple state and federal review agencies.
Response: The design team strategically removed secondary outmoded space within the interior of the complex – between the restored historic front and back sections – in order to accommodate the new atrium and the large program spaces. New construction is expressed in contemporary design and materials to differentiate from original structure, respectfully woven in and around the restored historic buildings.
Challenge: How to significantly expand the school’s programs where the existing building occupies 95% of the rest of the site outside of the historic lawn (which could not be built upon), severely limiting the options.
Response: The required parking was placed underground out of sight, bay projections at the sides and the back – which allowed construction beyond existing building lines – were utilized, and the allowable zoning height was maximized with additional floors, set back from facades.
Challenge: Create a sense of school identity and a central gathering place, where there was none.
Response: The new Atrium – carved out of the school’s center – serves as the light-filled, main gathering space and crossroads. At the Atrium floor – under the skylight and the raised Ellington Theater – is the institution’s central and defining space providing flexible furnishings and serving many school and outside functions including cafeteria, classes, performances, meetings, lounge and entertainment space.
Challenge: The “old” Ellington was a rabbit warren of adapted spaces ill-suited to the school’s diverse programmatic requirements, with departments typically isolated and not co-located. Provide students with an intelligible and collaborative learning environment increasing awareness of the diversity of career opportunities and artistic expressions.
Response: The “Arts Machine” design seeks to rationalize the circulation system and express and expose what goes on inside, promoting interdepartmental awareness in a visually open and collaborative environment The huge variety of specialized spaces reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of the arts: instrumental, voice, acting, dance, theater and costume design, AV and lighting, 2D and 3D fine arts, graphics, printmaking and museum studies. There are opportunities throughout to express and display the talent of the students, faculty and alumni – from the main Gallery, to niches and presentation walls throughout the circulation systems, to the atrium itself.
Challenge: Provide multiple, professional level, state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance spaces
Response: The re-invented Ellington Theater, the school’s most important space since its founding in 1974, is placed front and center in direct line of the main Gallery and public entrance, providing an orienting heart to the institution. Two other major rehearsal and performance spaces – the Small Performance Hall and Black Box – both fully equipped with professional-level features – offer diverse venues to invite the DC Community in to experience the fruits of its pre-professional programs.
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