"A beacon in the community." That’s one way that a District of Columbia official describes the Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in a transitioning section of the nation’s capital.
Ballou’s sleek modern lines and expanses of glass sit on a hillside in southeast Washington’s Anacostia — an aspirational site, if you will, above elementary and middle schools, and for some time to come, just yards from the high school it has replaced, which was being demolished at this writing. Also nearby in at least two directions: attractive, recently constructed townhouse developments.
The new, $142-million building is a bustling center of the community, and with 356,000 square feet of space, it is the third largest school in the district. Construction — the design-build team was a joint venture of Chiaramonte-Hess, and the architects another joint venture, of Bowie Gridley and Perkins+Will — started in January 2013 and the doors opened in January 2015 for its 1,400 full-time high school students and 900 parttime adult education students. School Planning & Management toured the facility with project managers Marcos Miranda and Hakim Chambers during a busy school day soon after the opening.
exterior deck area of high schoolAccording to the D.C. official, Darrell Pressley, spokesman for the district Department of General Services’ (DGS) Office of Government Affairs and Communications, the guiding vision for the Ballou project was perhaps best expressed by the late former mayor Marion Barry, who shepherded the project while serving as councilman for the school’s Ward 8. “He often spoke about how he hoped the community would be proud of this direct investment and that it would inspire both current students and future generations,” says Pressley.
The district moved students from the old school directly into the new building — precluding the need for swing space saved money — with the former site to be used for athletic and practice fields and parking.
Constructing Ballou on its steep, sixacre hillside site was a significant challenge, Pressley says. “The design team decided to embrace and celebrate the unique landscape by designing a facility that naturally follows the cascading hillside.” As he explains, the main entrance is on the building’s third floor.
The building, as Pressley explains, is in the form of an abstracted, closed triangle with an expansive courtyard in its center. The configuration required contractors to build “from the outside in.” As work neared completion, a gap was left to enable “just enough space to remove all of the heavy equipment before workers closed off the last section.”
That goal of inspiration is evident throughout the complex. Upon entering, there is a large, bold mural with depictions of historic figures as well as other inspirational people: current Ballou student achievers in academics, music and sports. Their painted figures rotate out and in as such young men and women enter and graduate from the school.
It’s a sign of things to come deeper within the space: fresh, pristine materials, features, finishes and equipment with a special flourish here and there, such as the school’s 500-seat cafeteria space, the dramatic center of Ballou encountered below the entrance. That space’s curtain wall opens onto a football-field sized courtyard that is the school’s outdoor enclosed commons. Among the other highlights:
In yet another highlight, a band room pays homage to the school’s nationally recognized marching band program — trophies sat lining the walls before shelving to store them was completed. It’s a regal, corner room with floor-to-ceiling glass and a high ceiling. Like other rooms on the upper floors, the band room has a view of the surrounding community that Ballou’s young people are part of and will guide in the future.
There are also features that highlight the school’s role as a community resource, as in an eight-lane, 25-yard-long, ADA accessible swimming pool managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation, and two gymnasiums to better enable school sports and community summer leagues.
A state-of-the-art 680-seat theatre, which in addition to its daily high school uses will be booked for outside events, which is the largest public indoor gathering space south of the Anacostia River, officials point out. indoor high school libraryA variety of suppliers’ products furnish and equip the school. Among many others there are gym bleachers are fitted with Hussey Seating Company equipment, teachers’ desks by KI, Virco desks and chairs, Wenger choir risers. On an important point, the process of making Ballou did not happen in a vacuum. There was plenty of insight and input from a variety of local sources, as is the practice in the district. Pressley explains, “The community, faculty, staff and students were directly involved with the project from basically its inception. DGS utilizes School or Site Improvement Teams (SIT) for all major modernization projects. This process is designed to directly engage the stakeholders and solicit their input throughout the duration of the project.”
For the duration indeed: “The SIT team participated in everything,” says Pressley, “from the development of the education specification process, which is the basis of the academic program design, all the way through providing input for the architectural and construction selection process.” The results are evident.
As Pressley adds of Ballou, “It’s one of the new signature projects south of the Anacostia River, and it’s helped lead the way for the redevelopment” of the area. A beacon, indeed.