Taking place on a clear, but windswept day, the ceremony and re-union of students served as more than just a chance to relive memories and take pride.
In some ways, the event was an important milestone for this part of the region. We are now seeing the county’s interest in adaptive re-use and how it fits into an overall plan for the future.
The remaking of suburbia into a more sustainable place to live and work will not be easy. Nowhere is this more true than the Richmond Highway Corridor south of Alexandria, where the landscape has been filled with choking traffic, run-down strip malls, bland architecture and a glaring shortage of historical homes and buildings.
The job can be done, as seen in Arlington where commuter arteries such as Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike have transformed into a string of walkable communities.
Some attractive and appealing elements - the winding trace of the road, leafy hills and valleys, and protected green spaces such as Huntley Meadows - are already in place for this southeastern part of the county.
In a race to catch up to jurisdictions that have successfully implemented smart growth practices, county planners and politicians have corralled funding for Rapid Bus Transit and voted for rezoning that allows for denser, mixed-use communities. Although some were made in an unattractive subdued color, wayfinding signs have brought attention to the distinct communities along the historic highway.
Set backs such as the recent halt in demolition of the Penn Daw Plaza (residential and mixed-use on the drawing boards) caused by an 11th hour withdrawal by a grocer, have frustrated residents and slowed momentum. Overall, however, the game plan is working.
Places such as the City of Alexandria have caressed the paradigm that makes adaptive reuse happen. The most recent case is taking place at the corner of N. St. Asaph and Wythe streets. A Health Center Building built in the 1940s is being redeveloped with a save of the Art Deco facade. This save demonstrates that a building does not have to be more than a century old to be a candidate for adaptive re-use.
Fairfax County never had as many historical places as Alexandria, which is why it is critical the county identify and try and save any such assets.
This brings up back to the original Mount Vernon High School. The county has identified the building as a place for adaptive re-use. They are looking at future uses for the high school property as well as the adjacent George Washington rec center land. A total of 40 acres is involved for the parcel, about one mile north of Mount Vernon.
Waiting for the 11 am start, a number of alumni walked inside and reminisced about the days gone by at the school. The auditorium would be a great place for public events, including holding author talks or book fairs.
A little bit of the history of this building, culled from the Washington Post articles, the marker and other sources. Constructed in the Colonial Revival style in 1940, it opened as the Mount Vernon High School. The financing was part of a Public Works Administration grant given to the county.
In 1973, the school moved to its current location just to the east. The building then housed Walt Whitman Intermediate School until 1985. That school then moved to Parkers Lane.
The original Mount Vernon School Building then sat vacant. A task force formed by the Board of Supervisors asked the county to pay for repairs and consider turning the building into a community center.
Those plans did not come to fruition. To the rescue, however, came the private Islamic Saudi Academy. They funded a $5M facelift in exchange for a five-year rent free lease. The students represented 26 nations and operated from 1986 to June of this year.
Michael Bohn points out that prior to 1939, area students attended Lee-Jackson, which opened in 1926. It was located at the intersection of Duke Street and Quaker Lane, currently occupied by PNC Bank. Historic Aerials website show the school building demolished in the 198os.
And that is the great hope and potential for this historic building. It will be a lesson in how a community can come together to save a valuable asset and not just tear it down for new.