The Corcoran’s Flagg Building prior to renovations (photo by APK via Wikimedia Commons)

Every year it’s something new with Washington DC’s Corcoran School. In 2014, the then independent Corcoran College of Art and Design was absorbed into nearby George Washington University (GW). A year later, students and faculty at the newly named Corcoran School of Art & Design still felt a culture clash with the rest of GW, while fearing sweeping curriculum changes and a loss of their unique art school community. In June 2016, the school laid off 10 professors; many had taught at the college for years and were beloved by students. And, in 2017, the renovation troubles began.

In the January 5 cover article of DC’s local independent weekly, Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps drew attention to the many problems resulting from a massive renovation project to the school’s historic 1897 Flagg Building. Because classes are still taking place in the building during construction, students, faculty, and staff complain of health issues caused by dust and particles in the air, including nosebleeds, migraines, and asthma attacks. There are also reports of displaced rats and cockroaches running all over the place, not to mention lectures being disrupted by random jackhammering and construction workers’ catcalls.

The Corcoran’s Flagg Building in 1923 (photo by the National Photo Company, courtesy the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

The atmosphere at the school — in both senses of the word — became so problematic that a town hall was called in late November. During the hourlong Q&A (you can view a student video of the whole thing here), administrators in GW’s Division of Safety & Security and Facilities & Campus Development were pummeled with questions about air quality tests, pest control, and noise. One professor complained that a guest speaker in her class called the building “uninhabitable,” while another passionately shamed the college dean, who was sitting right in front of her, for letting these problems continue. “There’s no way I can conduct a class with a dust mask on,” said one professor after administrators mentioned that there was a box of dust masks available to anyone who wanted one.

Meanwhile, the rats were excused as a city-wide problem (although they did agree to move the workers’ portable toilets further from the door) and the noise as unavoidable, with a comparison made to remodeling a house — you put up with the noise and the mess to reap the benefits later on. But, as one student pointed out, older students likely won’t be around to see the improvements. “I’m paying all this money, but I can’t hear my professor speak,” she said.

Interior of the Corcoran’s Flagg Building prior to renovations (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons)

In a phone interview with Hyperallergic earlier this week, Corcoran student Maeve McCool (I also talked to her in 2015) said that she felt the town hall answered some questions, but not all. “It’s a huge undertaking to fix up the building,” she said. “People probably didn’t know how big a job this was going to be.” McCool said she hasn’t experienced any health problems herself, but as an art history student, she only spends about half of her time in the building, whereas two of the most vocal students at the town hall, one of whom complained of a dip in fertility and even threatened a class action lawsuit toward the end, are “fine art seniors, who are in the building all the time.”

McCool sees this whole situation as a breakdown in communication — between GW and Corcoran administrators, administrators and students, administrators and faculty. When students found a vat of mysterious sludge seemingly abandoned in the hallway and posted a video on Facebook, the vat was immediately removed. It seems no one but the students even knew it was there. After the town hall, McCool says, they even started emailing students weekly updates on renovations. 

The university clearly made a mistake in deciding to keep classes going in the building during all this construction, but as McCool noted, they likely didn’t know themselves just how much work they were getting themselves into. Yet one thing they likely didn’t take into consideration is the fact that art students spend much more time in classrooms and studios than probably any other major. As many people at the town hall pointed out, just because the air quality tests come out normal doesn’t necessarily mean that people spending all day every day inside the building aren’t being affected. The target date for the end of construction is this spring. At least it’ll be over soon.

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Elena Goukassian

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...