School Without Walls Senior High School, Washington, D.C.

Date posted: May 1, 2013


Originally built in 1882 as an elementary school, the building was renamed the Grant School in 1890 in honor of the general and president. It is one of the earliest surviving school buildings in the District of Columbia. The three-story, twelve-classroom model for the Grant School building was based on then Superintendent of Schools J. Ormond Wilson's in-depth study of schoolhouses in the United States and abroad. Architect John B. Brady, then the city’s building inspector, designed the building.

Now in the heart of George Washington University, the small public School Without Walls High School (created in 1971) offers an innovative early college prep curriculum.

By the numbers

Dates of Original Construction: 1882
Date of Renovation/Addition: 2009
Total Cost of Renovation: $39 million
Finished Square Feet: 66,000 square feet
Enrollment: 550 students
Architect: EE&K, a Perkins Eastman company


The modernization was realized by an innovative public-private partnership. Arising from the existing programmatic partnership with the George Washington University, which enables Walls’ students to earn an Associates’ degree, the school, committed parents, and the District created another innovative partnership through which GWU purchased part of the school’s parking lot and excess development rights, partially funding the modernization and expansion of Walls’ badly deteriorated building.

The intimate, non-institutional character and inviting day-lit interior of the historic, 19th-century Grant School – a local landmark also listed on the National Register of Historic Places – were echoed in the design of a 21st-century addition.

The addition houses the resources both large (media center, art and science labs) and small (bathrooms and elevator) that the 1882 building could not, easily or cost effectively accommodate, the addition enabled the Grant School building to return to its original plan and once again become a great classroom building. The design retains the character of the historic classrooms and volume of the center halls while integrating modern systems. Combined, these two buildings provide technology-rich learning environments.

The many restored windows and new skylights above the transition corridor between the historic existing and new buildings allows for natural light. Within the historic building, design interventions to enhance acoustics and thermal performance restored the integrity of the building’s wood wainscotting, hardwood flooring and wood batten ceilings. Outside, the entire building was repointed and a new slate roof protects the interior.

The historic school is located on a transit-oriented, half-acre urban site. It is close to the Metro which reduces parking needs. The facilities are used by George Washington University after regular school hours because the classrooms are “college ready” and contain the latest technology. The high school students use the University’s gymnasia, auditoria and food court which enables the school to remain on its downtown location. Indoor environmental quality is enhanced through the use of efficient mechanical and lighting systems, operable windows, and low-emitting materials.

The project achieved a Gold rating under LEED for Schools Version 2.0. and has been awarded a number of awards including Learning by Design’s 2010 Grand Prize Award for Excellence in Educational Facility Design, the 2010 AIA Committee on Architecture for Education Educational Facility Design Awards Program Citation, and the 2008 Design Share Merit Award.

Upon reopening for the 2009-2010 school year, the restored bell rang, celebrating the return of Walls and the Grant School’s arrival in the 21st century.

Key takeaways

  • Modern additions can accommodate uses that are not easily or cost-effective to include in older facilities.
  • Public-private partnerships have both programmatic and capital benefits. In this case, the partnership between the school and George Washington University helped pay for the modernization and expansion of the school building itself.
  • New technology can transform a 19th century schoolhouse into a 21st century educational center that serves both high school and college communities.


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