Too cool for school: Historic D.C. school buildings find new life as condos

Returning to the classroom is a daily routine for District restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn. The former “Top Chef” contestant and owner of several local eateries lives in the renovated Pierce School in Northeast Washington, near the bustling H Street corridor.

“It’s a magical-looking building,” says Mendelsohn of the 1893 brick structure with its corner turrets. “After going inside and seeing how they managed to capture the integrity of the school, I was sold.”

The 33-year-old chef has rented in the school since 2011 and pays $2,400 per month for a classroom-turned-loft. He sleeps in a bed within a turret, stores his belongings in a former student cloakroom and cooks in a kitchen raised on a platform to look over the living space.

“It’s great for entertaining,” says Mendelsohn of the elevated cooking area. “You can control the party and it puts you on stage a little bit.”

Blackboards along one wall come in handy for making to-do lists for his businesses, including Bearnaise on Capitol Hill and the Sheppard, a recently opened bar near Dupont Circle.

Now his unit and six others in the Pierce School are being sold as condos. Real estate developers Jeff Printz and Chris Swanson, who own the school, are marketing one-bedroom apartments in the building for $375,000 and classroom lofts from $499,000 to $649,000, as well as listing their penthouse for $2.9 million.

The condo strategy comes after they tried to sell the entire building for $7.2 million in 2013 and dropped the price in July to $6.5 million.

Printz and Swanson bought the once-dilapidated school from the District government in 2000 for $275,000 and spent $3.5 million to renovate the building into rental apartments. They turned the top floor and attic into their own five-bedroom home with a movie theater, a disco-themed bathroom and a rooftop garden.

“In a school, you don’t have the same limitations as you do in a home,” says Printz. “You can make the spaces what you want them to be.

“In doing so, we made sure the history of the building remained visible.”

Original metal-and-slate staircases and spacious hallways, one with an original drinking fountain, connect the main floor and basement units.

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The Pierce School is just the latest learning environment in the city to go condo. From the 1885 Wormley School in Georgetown to the 1903 Edmonds School on Capitol Hill, former classrooms have become some of the most coveted properties in town.

At the renovated James G. Berret Elementary School near Logan Circle, homeowners Brandon and Elizabeth Long recently received five offers on their two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo within a week. Listed for $699,000, the former schoolroom sold for $750,000 in early September.

The Longs, who originally paid $647,500 in 2011 for the unit, remodeled the kitchen with Ikea cabinets and a farmhouse sink. “We liked the potential we saw, the interplay between historic and contemporary design,” says Elizabeth Long, 31, an architect.

In a city with few industrial structures for conversion, District school buildings offer the rare opportunity for authentic lofts with high ceilings and tall windows already in place. Their classrooms typically rise to 13 to 15 feet, with huge, operable windows measuring 8 to 9 feet tall to provide plenty of daylight.

Developers have capitalized on the generous proportions by adding mezzanines and contemporary kitchens exposed to open living spaces.

“This building captured our imaginations,” says federal researcher Tom Brock, 52, of the renovated Edmonds School, where he now lives. “Its blend of old and new stood out from all the places we looked at.”

In June, Brock and his partner Bill Sawyer, 63, a retired information technology specialist, were among the first buyers to move into the recycled school after waiting about eight months for their two-level unit to be completed. They spent about $900,000 for the two-bedroom condo, with its stainless-steel kitchen appliances and heated floor and Italian sinks in the master bathroom.

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As evident in several converted school rooms, the window sills in their living area are raised nearly four feet off the floor, so draperies and shades aren’t necessary for privacy.

Part of the appeal of school condos is the variety of unit designs in spaces once used as classrooms, cloakrooms and corridors. Former Navy officer Alicia Washkevich, 33, who now works at the Sierra Club, bought one of the smallest units in the remodeled Gage School in LeDroit Park based on its architectural character.

“I fell in love immediately with the exposed brick walls,” says Washkevich, who paid $240,000 for her L-shaped efficiency in 2012.

“Because of the high ceilings, the space feels bigger and the closets are taller for more storage.”

Built in 1902, the remodeled Georgian Revival-style Gage School is part of a three-building complex developed by Urban Realty Advisors to maximize the number of housing units on the site.

“The 59 units in two new buildings on the site gave the project critical mass and justified the investment required to save and adapt the landmark school,” says architect David Haresign of Bonstra Haresign, the District firm responsible for the design.

The Edmonds, Pierce and Wormley school condominiums similarly incorporate new or renovated townhouses as part of their developments.

For the architects of school conversions, the challenge is to retain as many original architectural features as possible while modernizing the buildings to meet current standards. At the Gage School, necessities such as fire stairs and an elevator were accommodated by widening a 1908 addition to the school while leaving original masonry and framing intact.

District architect Eric Colbert, who redesigned the 1889 Berret School into condos, removed portions of a chimney from inside the building to gain more space for the units. “We inserted a steel structure under the roof to hold up the chimney and allow it to remain visible from the outside,” says Colbert.

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Graphic designer Gary Ridley was one of the first to buy in the Berret and still lives on the top floor. Ridley, 50, purchased his two-level, two-bedroom penthouse in 1999 for $340,000. “What sold me on the unit were the good bones and 14-foot-high ceilings,” Ridley says.

He reinforced its schoolhouse charm by staining the original oak floors, exposing the brick walls and hanging classroom-style globe lights above the foyer and kitchen.

“It would be nice to have an outdoor space,” says Ridley, citing one of the disadvantages to living in a building where balconies and roof decks are absent. While such amenities are often lacking in converted schools, developers of recent projects have made an effort to create common areas. At the Edmonds School, part of the parking lot is covered by an elevated deck, providing an outdoor terrace for homeowners. The Gage School adjoins a grassy courtyard built over an underground parking garage that is used for barbecues and happy hours.

At the Pierce School, a black-bottomed swimming pool and grilling area occupy the playground, and wide hallways serve as galleries for exhibiting works by local artists.

“Everyone who comes to visit is wowed by the tall ceilings, the pool and gym in the basement,” says Mendelsohn, adding, “I would love to buy my loft. The cool factor is way up there.”