The design of Walt Whitman High School was built on innovation

Home of the dome

How an innovative field house brought national attention to Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School

| Published:
Dome
Photo illustration by Alice Kresse

In 1959, as a tidal wave of baby boomers approached high school age, Bethesda faced a classroom shortage. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, built in 1935, was showing its age and running out of space. Walter Johnson High School, opened in a farm field in 1956, helped relieve some of the strain by serving the expanding number of North Bethesda students.

But the western suburbs, rising relentlessly outward along River Road, needed a high school of their own. So the county school board announced plans to build a new school—Walt Whitman High School—on land along Whittier Boulevard.

With design innovation as the goal, the school board hired architect Anthony Ferrara, a Potomac resident and a founder of the Bethesda-based firm now called McLeod, Ferrara & Ensign. By the 1950s, Ferrara had established himself as a forward-thinking school designer, and his buildings were conspicuous throughout Montgomery County. They included North Bethesda Junior High School (completed in 1955), Rollingwood Elementary School in Chevy Chase (1951), Hillandale Elementary School in Silver Spring (1952), Emory Grove Elementary School in Gaithersburg (1950), and George Washington Carver High School and Junior College in Rockville (1951).

Ferrara created an angular design for the new Bethesda high school, with intersecting blocks forming a U-shaped complex, its arms of various heights wrapping around a center courtyard commonly referred to as “the quad.” Inside, a multilevel, open approach to classrooms and common areas created flexible learning environments. The field house became a design focal point. Ferrara was familiar with the work of futuristic architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who in 1954 exhibited a type of structure he called a “geodesic dome.” The geometry of the dome’s strong but lightweight framework was based on polygons, connected to create spherical shapes. With a grant from the Educational Facilities Laboratories, an entity of the Ford Foundation, Ferrara produced a detailed cost study comparing conventional gymnasium designs with Fuller’s geodesic dome.

The school board was reluctant to commit public funds for such a radical concept. Yet Ferrara’s study proved that building the dome was not only feasible, but could provide, at significantly less cost, 4,000 more square feet and 1,000 more seats than a conventional two-story field house.

When completed in 1962, the field house received national attention as the country’s first steel-framed geodesic dome built at a school. The Architectural Record declared the dome “gives more for less.” Modern Steel Construction magazine commented that “whatever the nature of physical education is in this century and the next, the dome should be adaptable enough to accommodate it.” Over the next 30 years, the 3,500-seat dome hosted sports events, convocations, theater productions and concerts featuring chart-topping acts such as singer Wilson Pickett.

In 1992, the dome was torn down to make way for a remodeled campus. Early this century the school was again renovated and expanded to serve its increasing enrollment. In February 2018, the school board approved another expansion. The $24.5 million project calls for demolishing the adjacent and abandoned Whittier Woods Elementary School and Whittier Woods Annex and replacing them with an addition housing 18 classrooms, five science labs, a courtyard and a dance studio. The project is scheduled to be completed by September 2021.

Despite the changes, the school will always be known to generations of Whitman graduates as “the home of the dome.”

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.

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