As DC’s urban landscape grew to accommodate its growing population, so did its young population of school-aged children. While schoolhouses existed throughout the city for these children, they were majorly insufficient for the sharp increase in student populations that occurred in the late 19th century. The Smothers School helped alleviate classroom overcrowding, especially in the midst of another population spike after World War I. Originally completed in 1923, with additions completed in 1927 and 1938, the Smothers School opened its doors to African American students. The original Smothers School was started by Henry Smothers, who founded the school after attending the Billings School and wanted to continue educating African American students in DC. The original school moved locations twice before settling on Benning Road NE, after which it changed its name to the Benning Road School. Once the new Smothers School began construction and received its name in the 1920s, the older school closed its doors.
The 1923 building was constructed by Albert Harris, who was the Municipal Architect of DC during this time. It was designed in the then popular Georgian Revival style. Harris also designed the first addition to the school in 1927; later, succeeding Municipal Architect Nathan Wyeth adhered to Harris’s original style in the 1938 additions. The school’s original floor plans accounted for future expansions, as architects saw the continued growth in DC’s school system. The building’s original T-shape layout was expanded vertically, with a third floor added in the decades that followed.
Older school buildings in the city were often small, outdated, and insufficient for expansion, and, oftentimes, African American students were housed in informal spaces like churches or homes. While local residents and organizations privately funded schools for African American children (such as the Billings School in Georgetown, one of the first in the city), government efforts in providing education to African American students were not consolidated with white schools until 1874.
From 2019 to 2022, the school underwent major renovations to improve its technological and circulation capabilities. While much of the interior and layout of the school changed, the building’s exterior was preserved and not significantly altered – other than two wings added to its northeast and western ends. The building still functions as an elementary school today.
DC Inventory: March 23, 2023
National Register: June 23, 2023