The placement of this Brutalist sculpture next to an elementary school looks as if it may have been intended to enhance the learning environs by bringing some whimsy to the playground. Hey kids! Hulking blocks of concrete can be fun! Just look at those jaunty integers! Or it may have been a reminder to the young students that school isn’t fun at all – numbers are serious business!
The truth is, this sculpture is a small part of what was a massive redevelopment of a deteriorating inner-city school’s playground facilities. This sculpture and two others are practically all that remains of what was once one of DC’s greatest playgrounds.
Built in 1895, the Buchanan School (1325 D Street SE) was old and run-down by the 1960s. The schoolyard was a barren site hemmed in on two sides by a chain-link fence. It was of little use to students or the local residents.
With the goal of reimagining the desolate schoolyard as an adventure playground for the whole community, the Vincent Astor Foundation, a proponent of innovative social projects, provided $428,940 to the Buchanan School as part of Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” program. The results transformed the schoolyard into one of the best playgrounds in DC.
Patterned after the Jacob Riis Plaza Playground in New York City, the revamped site included a sunken basketball court, amphitheater and water-spray area with wall-spray jets that transformed it into an outdoor shower during the hot summer months; a community area with picnic tables, game pedestals and benches; play equipment including bridges, towers, swings, cable jungles, ramps and pulleys on wire ramps for sliding and swinging; and art objects – for climbing!
“The play section for children is a dense forest of climbing poles, ‘hills’ of granite cobblestones to climb up on and tunnels to crawl under, sliding boards, a tree house, trampoline boards, a ‘spider’ made of radiating cables, a loose cable with a sliding ring to swoosh, like Tarzan, from hill to hill on, and all manner of stepping stones and bridges. All this rises on a deep layer of sand so no one gets hurt if he falls.” (Washington Post – May 8, 1968)
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that sand to be filled with garbage and broken glass.
Before the playground was built, the Washington Post called the schoolyard a “mess of broken concrete, weeds and trash.” Two years after the “children’s paradise” opened, the newspaper reported that “it sits among weeds, litter and desolation.”
So what happened?
Maintenance of the community playground was handed over to the cash-strapped DC Department of Parks and Recreation, which did … nothing. Ceaseless vandalism and poor maintenance plagued the playground. One fed the other until the entire site was dilapidated once more. Now, all that remains of the “round-the-clock community playground” are three concrete-block sculptures designed for climbing.
Created by William Tarr (1925-2006) and erected in 1967, the concrete numerical block (pictured at top of story) is located on the south side of what was originally the James Buchanan Secondary Learning Center, a high school. A larger, 15-foot-tall concrete column (right), also by Tarr, sits directly west of the main school, facing Watkins Field. This one is carved with circles, squares, arrows and rectangles, all laid in random patterns. It’s just as whimsical.
In the 1960s, urban planners were beginning to recognize that the sites of inner-city schools like Buchanan assume greater significance to the surrounding community than suburban or rural sites, because congested urban areas are often lacking recreational facilities within easy reach of their homes. They realized that many schools had taken on the appearance of prisons. They realized that no one likes to be in prison. They also realized that kids like to climb on things – even if they look like totalitarian totems. What they didn’t realize is that playgrounds need regular maintenance and protection from vandalism. Unfortunately, they left those tasks to the District government, which failed on all counts.
William Tarr’s concrete and steel sculptures appear to have been influenced by the anti-bourgeois nature of Soviet era architecture. (The Buchanan School sculptures are reminiscent of Brutalist architecture works in DC, such as the FBI Building and the University of Washington DC). His most famous work in DC is the 5,900-pound bronze “Gates of Hell,” also known as the “Gates of the Six Million,” displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Tarr’s sculptures for schools are still visible in both cities: New York landed the 63-ton welded-steel tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Manhattan, and DC ended up with a few concrete totems for a Capitol Hill elementary school.
The secondary school that had since become James Buchanan Elementary School had been slowly deteriorating for decades before it closed around 1994. In 1999, former professor and septuagenarian Walter Boek bought the four-building campus and converted it into the National Graduate University (dubbed the International Graduate University in 2009), saying that he was heeding the call of Congress for instituting such a school.
No one has been able to verify any of Boek’s statements regarding the origin or legitimacy of the university.
Given its mysterious origins, it’s not surprising that International Graduate University has a very weird history, with at most one or two rooms ever being used for classes on its massive campus. DC Councilmember Tommy Wells said of Boek in 2012 “… the guy creeps me out.” In November 2012, Boek died at age 89, leaving the fate of the International Graduate University in limbo. The William Tarr sculptures still grace the school grounds, just waiting to greet the next batch of students and haunt their dystopian dreams.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated after a reader notified us of factual in accuracies in the original. Thank you, friend of Heyday. You know who you are!