Built from 1865-1869, Benjamin Franklin School was the flagship of a group of seven modern urban public school buildings constructed between 1862 and 1875 to house, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the Capital.
The innovative Rundbogenstihl (“round-arched style”) design by Washington’s preeminent German-American architect Adolf Cluss won international awards for modern public school design at the 1873 Vienna, 1876 Philadelphia, and 1878 Paris World Expositions. The building was the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s “photophone” experiments in 1876, and housed the city’s first designated high school in 1880.
It served as an elementary school until 1925, and housed the administrative headquarters of the school system from 1928 to 1968. Impressive volumetric spaces constitute the most important features of the interior. Notable are the broad twin staircase (reflecting the practice of segregating the sexes), the Great Hall with remains of the original frescoes in an architectural trompe l’oeil design, and the remarkable timber-frame roof truss system. Other features reflect both the original design and later adaptations in response to changing educational and administrative uses, evolving aesthetics, and technological advances.
DC listing: November 8, 1964
National Register listing: April 11, 1973
National Historic Landmark designation: June 19, 1996
DC designation amended to include interiors: September 26, 2002