Preserved & Developed: Swanson Middle School

Preserved & Developed: Swanson Middle School

Preserved & Developed is a series of articles by Preservation Arlington highlighting local development projects that have involved both development of a site and preservation of historic resources. The projects highlight a wide range of challenges and solutions over many years. At the time they were completed the projects represented a commitment by the developer and the community to embrace the future and preserve the past. Preservation Arlington is awarding each project a gold, silver, or bronze star based on the extent to which the project protected historic resources within its particular constraints.bronze-star

Combining the needs of a rapidly growing school population with a historic school building can often be a big challenge. Add in a series of modifications and additions and physical plant constraints over many years and it gets even more complicated.

Swanson Middle School was designed by architect Raymond V. Long, who worked for the state Board of Education and was built with the assistance of the Federal Public Works Administration. Swanson first opened its doors in 1940 as a 7th through 9th grade junior high school. It is the oldest junior high in Virginia. For its 50th anniversary, the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution proclaiming Swanson as Virginia’s first junior high school. Swanson transitioned to an intermediate school in 1977, due to declining enrollment, and in 1990 picked up the 6th grade, thus becoming a middle school.

Swanson Original In the mid-1970s, the school had a massive fire, which gutted the top floors and resulted in alterations to the building’s Colonial Williamsburg style. Although the building had other alterations over the years, the most controversial change was the wing that was added to the building in 2005.

Claude A. Swanson served seven terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and 23 years in the U.S. Senate, was the 45th Governor of Virginia, and then served as the Secretary of the Navy for six years under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, until Swanson’s death in 1939.

Over the years the school has expanded numerous times. In 1954 a major addition resulted in a second gym, a cafeteria, and additional classrooms. In 2004 and 2005, an addition was constructed across the west portion of the north façade. It is built with bricks to match the original building and metal windows that are similar to the original building’s windows.

SwansonAerialWhile this new addition is very similar in material and design to the original building, the placement of the addition was not the best solution in preservation terms. Part of the beauty of the school is the site layout and placement of the original building. The new addition has this important civic building turning its back on the Westover community to the west that it serves.

In 2003, efforts began to designate the school as a local historic district. In April 2008, the County Board adopted and designated the Swanson Middle School Historic District, which put the school building under protection and required some, but certainly not all, changes to the building to come before the Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB). Both the School Board and HALRB agreed to the designation and the conditions for changes or alterations. Finally, one of the most visually prominent landmarks in the Westover neighborhood, with its commanding hilltop presence and mostly open front entrance lawn, is celebrated and protected as a local historic district. The local historic designation is limited to the significant features of the site, especially the original school building and its placement on the site.

Preservation Arlington, as the Arlington Heritage Alliance, voiced its concerns about the placement of the addition to Swanson Middle School and pushed for its designation as a local historic district. While the placement issues discussion was overwhelmed by other factors, the school was ultimately placed in a historic district. We are hopeful future changes will be sympathetic to the building materials and history but also the site layout within the community.

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