This past Saturday I took one of the guided tours offered by Brian Flahaven and the Ward 6 staff of the Eastern Branch Boys & Girls Club Building. The four-story structure was built in 1937 and sits on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 17th Street SE. Sadly, it sits vacant and has not been used for the past several years. A task force has been formed to gain community input and support on the rehabilitation and reuse of the building, and the tours have been one way to start the momentum.
The Club building is deceivingly large at 46,000 square feet. It includes a basketball court with rubber playing surface, a four lane competitive length swimming pool, a library, computer classrooms, and a cafeteria with stage and full commercial kitchen. It is obvious the Club served many roles to the surrounding community in its heyday. The dedicated boy scout room is uniquely intact, complete with wood “log” wall panels to evoke a wilderness lodge, and the dance classroom contains the requisite wall of mirrors for future ballerinas. Many walls are painted with colorful murals and even bear the autographs of celebrities who at one time or another visited the Club (even Tom Cruise was there, in 2001, while in DC filming Minority Report).
Sadly, much of the building needs repair work and potential remediation for asbestos. The swimming pool would need to be completely refinished and the reinforcing steel replaced as it has begun to rust from years of water damage. However, the bones of the building – the structure – appear to be in good shape and much of the mechanical equipment in the basement is relatively new.
So what to do with this 75-year old vacant building? The city owns the land and the building, and would like to partner with an entity that can put time and money into renovations (potentially even restoration if applicable, though the building currently carries no historic designation) in exchange for a long-term lease. The city does want the building to remain a resource for the community (i.e. not a condo) but does not currently have enough funding to renovate the structure and pay for its long-term operations and maintenance. The land is zoned as a special exception in a residential zone, which does offer some flexibility in its use. There is no existing on-site parking, however, which is a challenge for many external groups that would be able to occupy the building as there would need to be provisions for staff parking. Possible partners may include charter schools, nonprofit organizations, or day care facilities.
The ANC 6B Capitol Hill East Task Force is looking for ideas for solutions from residents. What types of facilities are needed in the community? With so much available interior space and a variety of existing facilities that could be modernized or redesigned, the possibilities are almost limitless (except for no housing– remember?). While the building itself isn’t historically significant, the facilities and services inside have a long history of supporting the local community and for that there is value in considering its renovation or restoration and not just demolition.
Updates on the Eastern Branch Club building, the previous reports on it, and future meetings to discuss its potential can be found on Flahaven’s website.