D.C. is about to add another museum to its list; a museum of linguistics (the study of language and its evolution, parts and structure). This museum, named “Planet Word,” intends to serve individuals of all ages and levels of literacy. It will be housed in the historic Franklin School Downtown (you’ll find it in Ward 2 at the intersection of 13th Street NW and K Street NW), which has long sat vacant and which the use of has, at times, been a contested topic (more on that).
One of the challenges of re-energizing and utilizing the Franklin School is that it is a National Historic Landmark and both its interior and exterior have preservation status. That limits some of the drastic developments that might occur in a completely new repurposing but lends itself to uses similar to the building’s fist purpose: to provide education. Philanthropist Ann Friedman is leading this new interactive linguistic endeavor.
The Planet Word website shares this mission:
to inspire a love of words and language…because language is essential to every aspect of our lives. Indeed the very strength of our democracy depends upon having a literate population that can understand and address today’s complex issues.
The site also promises that there will be fun and unique experiences that allow visitors to interact with the various forms of language in new ways, including reading, speaking, listening and writing. Museum entrance will be free. The founder invites you to,
come waltz with a verb, sip a bowl of alphabet soup, stroll with Question Mark, hold hands with that inseparable pair Q and U, and pay a visit to Spelling Bea. Identify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground.
The Washington Post shares that Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman) was inspired by her career as a reading teacher at Bethesda’s Burning Tree Elementary School, the NYC Museum of Mathematics, and other local philanthropists, including David Rubenstein and Abe Pollin.
Friedman plans to fundraise and is also willing to spend her own money to get the museum going. In exchange for a free 99-year lease, Friedman and her team will have to restore the building and create the museum, at an estimated cost of around $50 million (www.washingtonpost.com). She is the daughter of a shopping mall empire founder and vice chairwoman of the SEED Foundation and also holds leadership roles with Conservation International and the National Symphony Orchestra.
The Planet Word website also cites the distressing statistics relating to American literacy as a primary source of motivation and purpose for the museum, specifically that 21 percent of adults are reading below a fifth-grade level and 31 percent of fourth graders are not performing at a “Basic level on national reading tests.”
In the past, the Franklin School has served as a homeless shelter and been a hub of political demonstrations, among other uses. In 2014, a plan was made under Mayor Gray in cooperation with local art collector Dani Levinas for the Franklin School to become an Institute for Contemporary Expression. In a somewhat controversial move, this plan was discarded by Mayor Bowser in 2015 after her economic development staff reviewed the project. Fundraising efforts were a contested topic in this decision. ArtNet reports that the Mayor then proceeded to seek “bids from other parties interested in the redevelopment of the crumbling brick building.”
D.C. Neighborhood blog, Popville, shares this description of the development of Planet Word from an Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development press release:
Delivering on the Bowser Administration’s commitment to the creative economy, the proposed development will transform the historic space into Planet Word, an interactive language arts museum and education space.
Here are some concept sketches of the museum:
City Lab reports SmithGroupJJR, a Michigan architecture firm with over 150 years of experience, “will lead a renovation to rebuild the interior to include a maker space and classrooms as well as an auditorium in the building’s third-floor mezzanine level.” They are old hat at the restoration game and were recently awarded by the American Institute of Architects for the renovation and restoration of the Duke University East Campus Steam Plant.
The real estate developers of the new museum are Dantes Partners. Housing Finance reports that they have extensive experience in backing affordable housing; in 2015, they “broke ground on four developments with 198 units serving families, seniors and low-income individuals,” and acquired one more development. The same article reports that residents are not displaced during the rehabilitation of these areas.
The Franklin School’s original architect was Adolf Cluss, a star of D.C.’s Red Brick City era (red brick was often the chosen building material in D.C. from the 1860s to about the 1880s). Cluss also built the built the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building and Castle. The school was built in 1869 as one of D.C’s the first public education structures.
City Lab points out that developing Franklin Square, the park by the Franklin School, would be another great accomplishment for those managing this museum initiative. The park space could be integrated into museum programming and if it was upgraded with some TLC, the surrounding neighborhood would benefit.
If you want to learn more about Planet Word, visit their site at http://www.planetwordmuseum.org. If you are a language lover, you may also enjoy checking out the five-episode BBC documentary series about language written and presented by Stephen Fry: “Fry’s Planet Word.”