Writing a new history

Part restoration of a disused historic school and part new build, Museum Place sees Beyer Blinder Belle create a new residential and cultural destination in the heart of the US capital. Roseanne Field reports

Situated in the Southwest district of Washington DC, Randall Junior High School was built in 1906 for African American students, in a city that was at that time racially segregated. Two significant wings were added in 1927, before the school closed in 1978. The building then went through various uses including a high school career development centre, a homeless shelter, and artist’s studios.

In 2006, the building was purchased from the City of Washington for $6.2m by Corcoran Gallery of Art, who had the intention of redeveloping it. The project fell through following the bankruptcy of the developer’s equity partner, and so in 2010 the site was purchased for $6.5m in a joint venture between Telesis Development Group and The Rubell Family, called TRSW.

Due to its long tenure educating African American students, the school was added to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites – an official list of historic locations within the District of Columbia – in 2007. The organisation stated that it is “one of the few extant buildings associated with the pre-urban renewal history of south west Washington”, with the 1927 wings in particular “illustrating an important aspect of the history of African American education”.

The DC Inventory of Historic Sites added that the building “serves as a reminder of the cultural and social role that schools played in the 20th century development of African American communities” and “exemplifies early design standards for school building, reflecting the transition in the school system from elementary schools to junior high schools”. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, an official list held by the United States federal government.

In 2019 another developer, Lowe, acquired control of the development from TRSW, proceeding with the project in another joint venture – this time with Mitsui Fundosan American. They appointed Balfour Beatty as the design-build contractor and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB) as architects on the project.

The project is designed, says Lowe, to be a “cornerstone in the transformation and revitalisation of the Southwest and Capitol River districts of Washington DC”. The developer adds that its prominent position near major attractions as well as a variety of shopping and dining options “positions it well for a mix of uses”. Mark Rivers, executive vice president of Lowe explained the design team’s goal as to “preserve the historic school, and create an arts and cultural anchor in the Southwest neighbourhood, a designated Arts District.”

Design imperatives

Bearing the historical importance of the school in mind, it was essential to obtain design approval from both the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) – a government body that advises the Mayor on historic preservation in the District of Columbia – and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), a body comprising locally elected representatives whose role is to be the “neighbourhood’s voice” advising the District government. Both the HPRB and ANC unanimously approved BBB’s plans for the restoration of the school.

Although the school (the original brick main building plus the added east and west wings) were to be preserved and restored, some demolition work on other parts of the building was still required, which was undertaken by Balfour Beatty in summer 2020. This included elements seen as of “lesser historic value”, situated behind the main building and wings, making way for the new build aspects of the project.

With necessary demolition work completed, construction was ready to begin on both the restoration and new build aspects of the development; which will collectively be known as Museum Place. It will comprise residential space, a museum, and creative workspace, totalling over 500,000 square feet of usable space.

The Rubell Museum will be located in the central and east wing of the former school. The east wing will house a collection of contemporary art – including paintings, sculptures, photography, and installations – owned by its namesake, the Rubell family. The lower level of the central block will display work by local artists and the public, dubbed the community’s “cultural living room.” Comprising a total of 31,000 m2, it will also include a bookshop and cafe with an outdoor dining terrace. Entrance to the museum will be via a “dynamic and inviting” glass addition to the east wing, which BBB says will “enrich street activity” to benefit the project and community. Residents under the ANC umbrella will have free admission.

The school’s west wing – the West Randall building – will provide 18,000 ft2 of “creative workspace.” It was designed with a variety of potential tenants in mind, including cultural institutions, coworking businesses, nonprofit organisations, as well as ‘technology incubators’ aimed at helping startup businesses. Lowe’s Rivers comments: “A new mix of uses at the former school provides the community
and general public with an important cultural touchstone.”

The remaining space on the site created by the demolition of the less significant additions to the school will be home to Gallery 64, a 12 storey, U-shaped building comprising over 18,000 ft2 of residential space. Residents on the top floors will benefit from unrestricted views of local landmarks including the Capitol building. Located within three blocks of two metro stations, Museum Place will also feature
a substantial two storey underground parking facility.

Gallery 64’s U-shaped form will occupy the west, north, and east parts of the site, with the former school on the south side. This will create a central landscaped courtyard with access for residents, workers and museum visitors.

The designers BBB describe it as being formed in the manner of “building blocks,” comprising nine blocks stacked around the site. The first six floors on the east and west sides, behind the school building, are “cut at an angle, directing people in towards the central courtyard.” This is also where the entrances will be located, with some of the ground floor units also having private entrances and private outdoor space along the streetside. The six floors above this span from the centre of the north side, stretching round to slightly overhang the inner part of the “cut angle,” featuring a heavier use of glass. Overall, Gallery 64 has been designed with the most dense parts of the structure at the rear of the site, as far away from the historic building as possible in order to allow it to “continue to appear as a separate building and maintain the character of the existing streetscape.”

The residences at Gallery 64 will comprise 492 studio, one, two, and three-bedroom apartments. There will also be 19 two-storey townhouse-style homes which, says BBB, will “activate the street with increased pedestrian connectivity and visual interest”. 20% of the apartments – 98 in total – will be designated as affordable, defined in the US as households earning no more than 80% of the area’s median income.

The “mixed income” accommodation will include a number of amenities for residents. There will be an array of social spaces on the rooftops, featuring fire pits, outdoor kitchens and grilling stations. There will also be a dog walking area and “resort-style” pool with a food and drink service.

Internally, there will be a large communal lounge with a fireplace, along with a games room and fitness centre. The ‘creative’ theme from the museum is continued into the apartment buildings, with residents also having access to “maker spaces” and a sound studio.

The lower levels will include balconies and overhangs, included to complement the private gardens offered to residents of the ground floor units. They will also “provide a sense of human scale at the street level”.

Rivers describes Gallery 64 as a “unique residential option”. He says: “With the new museum as the cornerstone of the mixed-use development, Gallery 64 will be infused with art and culture, from its interior design to its resident programmes.”


The old school building was an “institutional interpretation of the Georgian Revival” style, faced with red brick and a limestone trim, say the architects. BBB wanted the new buildings to contrast and act as a backdrop to the historic ones, which is why they chose more contemporary materials, including glass and metal panels.

To offer a further counterpoint to the old school, the windows and glass of the new buildings have been intentionally arranged in an “irregular and informal” composition, as opposed to the “carefully arranged facades” of the brick buildings.

Internally, Gallery 64 has been designed to be minimalist, “taking its design cues from art galleries.” Polished concrete floors will feature throughout the lobby and communal areas alongside “minimal, simple details, in order to provide a neutral backdrop for the original artwork that will be installed.”

Landscaping & sustainability

The central courtyard forms a key part of the development, serving as a social meeting place. It will be connected to the surrounding area via access points at the south east and south west corners of Gallery 64. Various “asymmetrical” planting areas will be used to break up the space into different areas, as well as offering privacy for the residential entry points.

As well as the courtyard, landscaping streetside has also been carefully considered, developed by landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden (OvS). I Street (one of the Southwest district’s “primary corridors” and the street onto which the old school faces, will see existing trees retained and others added to maintain its character. An existing brick retaining wall will also be repaired and rebuilt, edged with a planter. A series of stairs and accessible ramps will lead visitors up to the building.

First Street and H Street, on the west and north sides of the development, will also be locations where the project will “maximise green space”. The private gardens and terraces of Gallery 64 will be sited along these streets, enclosed by a combination of green screens and brick walls – chosen to echo the character of the neighbourhood.

As part of the project’s ambition to hit sustainability targets, green roofs will be installed throughout, – including on top of Gallery 64, as well as on the seventh floor balconies. Alongside this, the development will have rainwater harvesting, “urban forestry best practices”, and feature a “substantial” solar panel installation.

Gallery 64 has been designed to LEED Gold standards, and the renovation of the old school buildings to comply with LEED Silver guidelines. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. The system considers several elements of a project, including a reduction in contribution to climate change; promoting sustainable and regenerative material cycles; enhancing community life; enhancing human health; protecting and restoring water resources; and protecting and enhancing biodiversity and ecosystems.

Projects are awarded a number of credits, with a different percentage allocated to each of the elements, with the total credits resulting in a certification ranging from Certified through to Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Construction on Museum Place started in 2020 with the necessary demolition of the old school buildings and the beginning of the renovation. Gallery 64 construction began in April 2021, and it’s anticipated the whole project will be completed by the end of 2022/early 2023. Developer Lowe’s Rivers sums up the project: “This is a positive addition to the historic neighbourhood.