What began life in 1951 as Kann’s Department Store, then in 1979 embarked on a second act as the nucleus of the Arlington campus of George Mason University, will not be making it to its 70th birthday.
The building, which has not been in academic use for years, is slated to be demolished beginning in early March, according to university officials. The razing, long in the works, will free up space for a major new facility on the 4.8-acre parcel in the heart of Virginia Square.
“Decommissioning” of the Kann’s building has begun, university officials said, in preparation for its razing.
In its place will rise the Institute for Digital InnovAtion, a 400,000-square-foot public-private-partnership building to be the centerpiece of a five-year, $250 million expansion effort that kicked off in June, designed to bring an additional 300 faculty and 1,000 students to the Arlington campus.
The S. Kann Sons Co. firm opened the $4.5 million Arlington outlet (its first in Virginia) at the corner of Fairfax Drive and North Kirkwood Road in November 1951. Its features included a restaurant called the Kannteen and a fully-stocked infirmary with nurse on staff. Miniature live monkeys, seen as giving the store a competitive advantage over its rivals, were on hand to greet customers in the early days.
The small department-store chain fell on hard times by the mid-1970s, with both the Virginia Square store and the D.C. flagship closing.
George Mason purchased the Arlington parcel in 1979, initially to house its law school. Paul Ferguson – an Arlington native, former County Board member and currently clerk of the Circuit Court who attended the Mason law school – is known to occasionally remark that he got both shoes for his first day of kindergarten and his law degree in the same building.
The university used the low-slung yet still slightly hulking building for other purposes, as well, including its School of Public Policy, before mothballing it in preparation for its eventual, and now several times delayed, demolition. By that point, a number of more modern Mason facilities had grown up around the Kann’s building on the Arlington campus.
The building, in some ways, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the neighborhood, getting no respect. Its Wikipedia entry stops in 2013 and its design is highlighted on a Website called Mid-Century Mundane (although, in fairness, that site says it only features the “most exciting” of the generally bland mid-20th-century architecture). There’s not even universal agreement on the name – it is variously spelled “Kanns,” “Kann’s” and (to a lesser degree) “Kann.”
In a 2011 inventory of historic buildings conducted by the Arlington government, the Kann’s site was included, but only as being of “minor” importance. The building is not on the Virginia Landmarks Register or the National Register of Historic Places (both honorific in nature), nor is it a standalone local historic district (which could give the county government some say over how, or whether, it could be redeveloped). Preservationists that have rallied to protect other buildings of similar vintage seem disinterested in doing battle on behalf of the Kann’s building.
As its name suggests, the incoming InnovAtion facility (known by the acronym IDIA), has been conceived to provide students and researchers access to cutting-edge programming and coursework, including the university’s new School of Computing. The effort is part of a state-government initiative designed to produce an additional 25,000 computer-science graduates by the 2030s.
Completion of the building is slated for the fall of 2025. Mason expects to occupy about 60 percent of available space, with the remainder being leased to industry partners.
George Mason is in the midst of an effort to develop a long-range master plan for its various campuses, which could involve shifting programs around.
“The IDIA project is a perfect example of what the master plan seeks to promote: a highly flexible, community-centric facility which will maximize student experience, teaching and research related to the disruptive technologies we have yet to imagine in the future,” said Carol Dillon Kissal, senior vice president for administration and finance at the university.
Growing the Arlington campus also provides Mason with a chance to compete with institutions of higher education that have their own footprints in Arlington, the District of Columbia and other urban-core parts of the Washington region.
“We do think physical proximity [to Amazon and other high-tech operations now calling the region home] will continue to have significance,” said Lauralyn Lee of Lee Partners LLC, which is helping to guide the university’s master-planning process.
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