Howard University eyes development plans while staying true to its roots

Campus Revival

Howard University eyes development plans while staying true to its roots

(Ted Eytan/Flickr)

About midway between the Yard, the quadrangle at the heart of Howard University’s campus, and the historic nightlife strip of U Street NW stands a compact brick Georgian building. Stacks of quoins rise up from Bryant Street, stepping back to frame tall arched windows before reaching a pitched roof and a smokestack. It’s unexpectedly graceful for a power plant, testifying to the ability of its architect, Albert Cassell.

On a cold December morning, construction workers were carefully removing the large windows as part of a long-overdue renovation. The rehab of the 1936 plant is one critical part of a campaign by the historically Black university to update its 86-acre main campus. The approach the administration has taken attempts to balance preservation of the heritage buildings at its core and construction of new specialized buildings at the periphery, funded by the sale and redevelopment of the school’s other real estate.

The keystone of the effort is an update to the university’s ten-year campus plan. Periodical zoning updates are required for institutions of higher learning in the District of Columbia, but Howard is using it as a benchmark for the future of the campus, building on a tradition of placemaking by preeminent Black architects, going back to Cassell.

“The Cassell plan is really the foundational plan on which the modern campus is built,” said Derrek Niec-Williams, Howard’s executive director of campus planning, architecture, and development. Completed in 1932, it was one of several consequential breaks from paternalistic white governance that followed the election of Howard’s first Black president, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Prior to this time, the federal government gave campus projects to white architects, such as Bruce Price, Jules Henri de Sibour, and a young John Russell Pope, who designed the 1909 Freedmen’s Hospital building, just opposite the Power Plant.

Cassell went on to design a dozen or so buildings around campus, including the iconic Founders Library, whose Georgian styling evoked the roots of American history. Later in the 1930s, the university turned to the partnership of D.C. native Hilyard Robinson and Los Angeles–based Paul Revere Williams. After World War II, Robinson and Williams made the modern movement their own, using their commissions to experiment with space planning, construction, and materials. The nine buildings they delivered have functionalist exteriors but put Williams’s signature curves to work in interiors and populated key spaces with Black-centered artworks.

Cassell’s elegant references and the innovation of Robinson and Williams’s contributions spoke in a dual register. On the one hand the buildings reinforced the value of the scholarship being done inside them. On the other, they presented evidence of the quality of the Black institution to a nation that expected little of its graduates and left their work out of textbooks.

A master plan showing the howard university campus
Howard’s updated campus plan will add new facilities while clearing lots for redevelopment. (Public record)

The buildings influenced design students like Melvin Mitchell, who earned his BArch from Howard before pursuing a dual career in practice and teaching. “We were just steeped in the Black excellence. This was a magnifier,” he said of a learning environment built by Black architects.

Mitchell, who went on to serve as chair of the architecture program at Morgan State, an HBCU in Baltimore, notes in his book The Crisis of the African-American Architect that the development of Howard’s campus fostered the architecture program and Black professional networks over 40 years. These commissions begat other work for Cassell, Robinson, and Williams while keeping students and graduates employed in the profession until African American architects secured better opportunities for themselves in the 1960s.

Given this history, the latest plan emphatically preserves Cassell’s work, particularly the Yard. While the plan calls for one building at the center of campus, a new student union, it otherwise clusters studio, medical, and STEM programs in dense multidisciplinary buildings at the periphery. For example, the plan envisions a new home for the architecture and communication programs on the back side of Robinson and Williams’s arts complex, which bounds the Yard to the north.

These dense aggregations of curricular spaces signal a move away from the school’s current approach, in which academic departments are given dedicated buildings of their own. Derrek Niec-Williams said this shift has already begun, owing to an accident two winters ago, when pipes burst all across campus. The moisture subsequently froze, resulting in extensive damage to historic buildings. The first restorations, such as that of Cassell’s Frederick Douglass Hall on the east side of the Yard, are only just reaching completion.

Still, unusual combinations of programming follow a tradition begun with Robinson and Williams’s work. Their 1956 biology building, for example, is topped with a greenhouse, making the most of limited land. Now, south of the historic campus, Howard envisions a multidisciplinary health science and STEM complex, created by adding seven-story laboratory buildings to the Freedmen’s Hospital building. On the opposite side of Bryant Street, the successor to Freedmen’s Hospital, Howard University Hospital, would move to a new building, matched by a medical office building for its faculty. The new buildings will likely be topped with solar panels; the plan calls for 1.3 megawatts of capacity to be installed across old and new roofs.

Relocating the hospital and medical programs opens up a massive area the university plans on redeveloping to bring in much-needed revenue. (In September the university received a $225 million tax abatement from the District of Columbia for the new hospital construction.) This is the most controversial aspect of the initiative Niec-Williams oversees. At the height of disinvestment in D.C. in the 1980s, Howard assembled a large area of industrial land south and west of the school. Now that ground has become some of the most valuable land in D.C. In the past decade, the university has acted to capture the value through a series of ground leases, for-profit subsidiaries, and contracts with the private student housing company Provident Resources Group.

Along these lines, the university is requesting changes in D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan, which governs development citywide. The increased density will allow the administrators more flexibility to develop the western edge of campus and the old hospital site. Niec-Williams said that many of the private and university-owned projects will include space for university and affiliated programs.

Niec-Williams argues the real estate moves are in line with Howard’s history, dating back to its founding in 1867. To pay for its first buildings, university leadership subdivided much of the rural land it acquired and sold the lots to early suburbanites. Moreover, the idea of leveraging its assets is of a younger vintage, going back to the 2000s. Racial wealth disparities have hampered the university’s ability to fundraise from alumni. Most of Cassell’s and Robinson and Williams’s buildings were funded by Congress. While the federal government still funds about 30 percent of university and hospital operations, the appropriations do not cover the cost of overdue capital projects.

But inseparable from the increased land values has been the influx of wealthier, white residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. Thirty years ago students were more upwardly mobile than their neighbors but shared an understanding of the campus’s cultural significance. That isn’t the case with newer white residents, leading to ongoing conflict about the appropriate use of the ungated campus by neighbors, especially dog walkers. Niec-Williams noted an even more direct effect of the increased prices. “We cannot rely on the adjacent market to house our students,” he said. So the campus plan makes space for 70 percent of students on campus, even as the administration seeks to grow enrollment.

Administrators will be grappling with the balance between heritage, curricular goals, and the need for revenue for many years to come. At the same time, the university has gained recognition as the alma mater of the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, and the discipline of architecture is beginning to reckon with the historical omission of practitioners such as Albert Cassell, Paul Revere Williams, and Hilyard Robinson. It is a major undertaking, Derrek Niec-Williams acknowledges. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Neil Flanagan is a practicing architectural designer in D.C., writing a book about the transformation of Washington in the 1920s.