Wilson School in 1930s

The Wilson School in Arlington as it appeared in the 1930s. (Arlington County Library archives)

A leader in the effort to preserve the 105-year-old Wilson School building in western Rosslyn hopes a last-minute outpouring of community support will sway the County Board.

Stan Karson, president of the Radnor/Fort Myer Heights Civic Association, on April 7 asked delegates to the Arlington County Civic Federation to rally the troops at what is likely to be D-Day for a decision on April 18.

“Come and support us on this,” Karson said. “It’s going to be uphill – we need all the support we can get.”

Members of the School Board, who oppose historic designation and plan to tear down the school to make way for new construction, won a round on April 6, when members of the Planning Commission voted 5-4 to oppose historic status.

Even had the vote gone the other way, County Board members have been sending signals in recent months that they plan to defer to the School Board on the matter.

Those School Board members, voting 5-0 to oppose historic status, say retaining any part of the school building would add unnecessary delays and costs to construction of a new home for the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.

They also say the building has seen so many changes over the years that there’s not much left to save – something county preservation staff have acknowledged may be true.

But Karson and other advocates have pressed County Board members to look at the bigger picture.

“It is the only historic building still existing in my community, public or private,” Karson told Civic Federation delegates. In failing to act on preservation, “we have been stiffed,” he said.

(The Civic Federation is on record supporting retention of significant amounts of open space on the Wilson School parcel when redevelopment takes place, but has never taken an up-or-down vote supporting preservation of the building.)

The county government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board twice in recent months has unanimously backed historic designation for the original part of the building. Those votes sent the proposal to the Planning Commission, but both bodies are merely advisory in nature; the final decision rests with the County Board.

The Wilson School site is an integral part of the Western Rosslyn Area Planning Study (WRAPS), which is looking at components of a redevelopment plan for the corridor. County officials aim to include the new school, affordable housing, private development and open space, as well as a new fire station, on the parcel. The school system is the largest landowner within the WRAPS area.

Currently, three Arlington school buildings have been tapped as historic districts: the Hume School (now home to the Arlington Historical Society’s museum), Maury School (home to the Arlington Arts Center) and Swanson Middle School.

(1) comment

Dave Schutz

I think it's helpful to separate two questions: if the Wilson School had survived in its original porticoed, cupolaed state, ought it have been preserved? Second, given that the portico and cupola are gone and the remaining building shows very little of the original character, ought that be preserved/reconstructed with the original ornamentation? I think the answers are 'probably not', and 'Hell no!'.

I should say I do have a dog in this fight: my kid goes to HB Woodlawn, and I am eager that the new building being made for that school be optimal in working for that program, rather than being constrained by the substantial additional expense of working within the outline of the existing Wilson School building. The site is very small, and the brain surgeons on our County Board seem eager to sell the existing adjacent fire station to Penzance developer rather than retaining that land.

To build a cupola and portico out of non-original materials and graft them onto the building would be deeply inauthentic. It takes us in the direction of Tianducheng and Epcot Center rather than real preservation. And it would damage the ability of the site to serve our children going forward as well as hugely increasing costs. A far better strategy would be to make an exhibit in the entry to the new HB School, modeled after the very nice exhibit at Barrett Elementary on the life of Kate Waller Barrett, and showing what we know about the Wilson School and its surroundings through the years.

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