Dunbar High School

Washington, District Of Columbia

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. has the distinction of being America’s first public high school for African-Americans. Intent on harkening back to a beloved building from 1917 – and replacing dim, bunker-like facilities built in 1977 – Perkins Eastman melded traditional and contemporary in an impressive new design that wowed the jurors. The new building opened in August of 2013.

Perkins Eastman turned the old inwardly-focused design outward, engaging the historically neglected surrounding neighborhoods with a modern and ecofriendly campus. When its 1,100+ students are done for the day, Dunbar High School opens its doors to the rest of the community, offering a state of the art pool, gymnasium, and many other resources.

Dunbar High School DC lunch room
The new lunch room. Source: Joseph Romeo.

The new campus design also reopens a street that was “megablocked out of existence,” said Jeff Speck, opening up a site for much-needed affordable housing. The new (old) street connects to the existing historic network of streets and sidewalks and greatly enhances mobility in the neighborhood with two-way traffic and sidewalks.

Though metaphorically built on history, the new Dunbar also strives for innovation. Designed with LEED Platinum certification standards in mind (the designation had not been finalized as of this writing), it includes a geothermal system, a 482 kW photovoltaic array, two 20,000-gallon cisterns, enhanced acoustics, low VOC materials, and underground parking. During the day, natural light provides much of the needed illumination. Broad steps provide a place for the school community to gather before and after school and suggest a scale of civic importance and seriousness of purpose.

Dunbar High School DC computer lab
The new computer lab. Source: Joseph Romeo.

CNU has been vocal in the call for reforming guidelines that recommend minimum acreage for high school campuses. These guidelines have pushed schools out of denser downtowns and out into greenfields away from where students actually live. Dunbar High School is a perfect example of what is possible on just 8.5 acres of land.

“Most importantly,” says Speck, “in a tough part of out national’s capital, it dignifies the lives of all those who use it, a population that for too long has been deprived of noble civic facilities in which to learn and teach.”

Top photo: The new entrance to Dunbar High School. Source: Joseph Romeo.

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