Sunday, March 31, 2013

Demolish Woodlawn Elementary School?

Woodlawn Elementary School Today
The Mt. Vernon-Lee part of Fairfax County has always been known for its history.  The Mt. Vernon Estate is our crown jewel.  The Woodlawn Mansion is a National Historic Landmark and the entire estate is subject to a historic zoning district.  The Grist Mill is growing in popularity.  Gunston Hall was the home of founding father George Mason.

U.S. 1 was renamed "Historic Route One" by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2010 with an amendment by Governor McDonnell to HB530 that I requested honoring Route 1 for its trove of historic assets.  One other asset along the road is Woodlawn Elementary School, but it is threatened.

In November, 2009, I held my first campaign kickoff in the Woodlawn Elementary School Auditorium because I thought the school symbolized several different trends in our community - history, diversity, changing demographics, and educational success.  The school honors its history by educating new families about the school's long history in our community. 
In September, 2012, I learned that Woodlawn Elementary School is scheduled to be renovated and that as part of that, Fairfax County Public Schools' engineering staff has decided to demolish the oldest part of the school.  I've been raising objections to this since then, but nothing has changed.  Here's some background.
Woodlawn Elementary's Beginnings 

In 1846, the Quaker's of Woodlawn decided to begin educating children in the Woodlawn part of Fairfax County.  The used the Woodlawn Mansion as their first school.  The school shifted to the miller's cottage for George Washington's Grist Mill, then the Gray's Hill Mansion (near the Belvoir Parade Grounds), and then the Quaker Meeting House (presently standing in Fort Belvoir). 

In 1869, the County decided to build a public school in the area and located it on half an acre of donated land on the Accotink Turnpike (U.S. 1).  In 1917-18, the structure burned and the two-room school was rebuilt.

There is a ton of other local history associated with the early schools that is covered in the document History of Woodlawn School by Mattie B. Cooper from 1968 which is online here.

The New Deal Fairfax County School Modernization Program
In 1929, Wilbert Tucker Woodson or W.T. Woodson was appointed as FCPS Superintendent.  He served until 1961.  Here's what the book A History of Fairfax County says:
There was little interest in public schools among the older and more influential citizens who through long Virginia tradition preferred private schools and academies. This group included the local politicians and large land owners, many of whom bitterly opposed repeated requests for increases in taxes for schools and used many means to deny them. The government workers, many being relatively new residents of the county, were interested in public schools and did not think the small rural schools offered the opportunities they felt their children should have.  Because the children of government workers of the district or federal level were admitted free in the urban schools of Washington, and since public transportation on the steam and electric railways and by bus was economical and convenient for most county children, many parents sent their children to Washington schools. Thus, this group which would naturally have exerted a strong influence for improvement of the local school system in the county was solving the problem of educating their children in another way.  A History of Fairfax County by Nan Netherson, Page 573.
Photo From Burke Patch - Taken by Tim Follos
Woodson commenced a FCPS modernization program to "replace the pot bellied stoves, water buckets, outhouses, pumps, and open wells, with modern heating systems, running water, and indoor plumbing, along with better learning and teaching facilities."  FCPS obtained a loan from the Virginia Literary Fund and a grant from the Public Works Administration (PWA) with the Federal Government. 

The first "new" school was Franconia Elementary in 1931 - it was demolished in 2010 as part of FCPS' renovation.  The second was Groveton in 1933 - demolished in 1991 and moved to its current site.  The old Groveton Elementary site is now The Beacon Apartments.  Centreville and Lorton Elementaries were built in 1934.  Centreville is now Mountain View Alternative School and Lorton Elementary is still standing but no longer used as a school.  Fairfax High School was built in 1934 and then sold in the early 1980's.  Today, it is Paul VI Catholic High School. 

Front Door at Woodlawn Elementary
Woodlawn Elementary School was built in 1937.  It is the oldest public school in the 44th District and is the oldest New Deal Era school still standing in the entire County that is used as it was originally designed - a public elementary public school. 

Fairview Elementary was built in 1938 - it's original section is completely buried in new construction (here's an aerial picture). 

In 1939, Mt. Vernon High School was built.  In 1974, Walt Whitman Middle School was expanded and became the present Mt. Vernon High School and the 1939 building was renamed Walt Whitman Middle School.  In 1983, Stephen Foster Intermediate School was renamed Walt Whitman after Fort Hunt High School was closed, and the 1939 building was deeded to the County.  Today, the original 1939 building is owned by Fairfax County but leased by the Islamic Saudi Academy. 

Burke, Dunn Loring and the Vienna Colored School (Louise Archer) were also built in 1939.  Burke Elementary is now known as Burke School and is used for special education students.  Dunn Loring is a Fairfax County Administrative Center.  Louise Archer Elementary is still used as an elementary school in the Town of Vienna on Nutley Street. 

Woodlawn's Uniqueness
The original 1937 Woodlawn Elementary building was based on a design by the Virginia State Board of Education and constructed by a firm from Newport News, Virginia.  

It is built in the Colonial Revival style like old Mt. Vernon High School.  It has many unique features.  You do not see doorways like the one at the right in modern schools.  It has a slate pitched roof.  The tile work in the school is unique.  The door hardware is unique along with the interior doors and windows (exterior windows were replaced).  The original ceilings are very high - although they were covered at some point to install air conditioning and forced air heating. 

The structure itself was constructed out of brick and woodframe.  It is build on a crawlspace.  The floors sit on wooden joists.  They don't build schools like this any more.

Each of the crawlspace vents has "VSBE" forged into them - Virginia State Board of Education (see picture to right).   

After its construction in 1937, the building saw additions in 1938, 1947, 1952, 1956, 1986, and 1987. You can see the additions in the documents I have uploaded here

Application for Historic Listing
FCPS applied for listing on the Virginia State Register of Historic Places in 2012 to access tax credits as part of the renovation.  You can read part of the listing here.  The building barely missed listing criteria due to how the application was framed.  Properties frequently need to be resubmitted for listing after feedback.

In December I spoke with the Virginia Department of Historic Preservation and they said that given the school's many additions, in addition to it still utilizing the oldest structure, it is also an excellent example of FCPS' changing facility needs through the last eight decades.  A local Mt. Vernon historic architect who formally chaired the Fairfax County Architecture Review Board, Richard Bierce, has offered to conduct and assessment and draft a revised application at no charge to FCPS.

Where Things Stand Today
On February 3, 2013, The Fairfax County History Commission wrote to FCPS and asked that the historic designation application be resubmitted with the ultimate goal of preserving the older part of the school and renovating with the use of federal tax credits.  You can read the letter here.  No response has been received. 

At this time, it appears that FCPS is not willing to reconsider their decision and says that the oldest part of the school must be demolished to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  FCPS also would like to improve the flow of cars at the school. 

Obviously, many historic buildings are renovated and remain intact such as The United States Capitol.  The primary problem is that the older part of the school is about ten steps higher than the new part necessitating a lift or a ramp. 

Many people in the community I have spoken with are disappointed with this decision to demolish one of the oldest public assets in our community now that they are just starting to learn about it. I am hopeful that FCPS will reconsider its decision after hearing more from the community.  I also hope that FCPS will adopt a more comprehensive strategy to protect and honor our historic assets instead of continuing to demolish our older schools.

You can find more detailed information here relied up on in writing this article:


  1. When FCPS decided to close the Old Mt. Vernon High School and move it to Stephen Foster they let that school go for about 5 years beforehand so that they could say that it would take however many millions of dollars to get it up to standards to keep it in service.

    In effect they sabotaged the school and then went through the dog-and-pony show of holding hearings and making parents think that they had a voice by allowing concerned parties to testify.

    FCPS will do what they want to do and they don't care about history. I support your efforts and would be sad to see them demolish Woodlawn but I can't imagine that they will reconsider. I hope that I am wrong.

    Best of luck and thanks for your efforts!

  2. Scott,

    What would be the best method to get attention?

    A petition? I would sign it!

  3. Jay - I might do that. I have a meeting coming up with our school board members and supervisors. We'll see what comes of the meeting.

    If someone thinks the community needs to be heard from, I think a petition would be an excellent vehicle to accomplish that.

    In the meantime, I'd suggest that you email the pertinent school board members - Dan Storck, Tammy Devereaux Kaufax, Ilryong Moon, Ryan McElveen and Ted Velkoff.