Anytime we renovate a historic structure to support modern educational needs, there’s likely an opportunity to blend the building’s unique characteristics with state-of-the art design principles.
One project demonstrating the complexities of historic renovation is the renovation of San Antonio’s Thomas Jefferson High School, completed by the Austin office of Perkins+Will. The project included renovations to the existing 44,000-square-foot facility and added 27,000 square feet of career and technical labs as well as a gym.
The school is not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the State of Texas Historical Register, its history is deeply ingrained in the community. So maintaining historical integrity was doubly important. Complying with local, state, and national preservation requirements presented challenges in design limitations and lengthy approval processes. But from the master-plan approval process onward, the team benefited from community support and an emphasis on open communication.
The interior renovations of the school included core academic classrooms, science labs, corridors, an administration suite, and career and technical labs for the school’s magnet programs in audio-visual and architecture. While the exterior renovation of the school had strict requirements for retaining the campus vernacular, the interior design offered more options. The team opened walls to create collaborative learning spaces, for instance, but they also matched historic doors and baseboard profiles.
The facility expansion added a layer of complexity, in that the team needed to balance the new construction, and its overall aesthetic, with the existing structure. The additions needed to be distinctly different from the historic school but maintain a cohesive look, requiring negotiations with the school district and preservation commissions.
To craft consistent additions that didn’t present false historicism, the team matched the colors of the masonry and limestone to the original building. Working with the existing Spanish Baroque style, the addition’s designers created new motifs in the stone ornament with a shape and style exclusive to the expansion. Where the addition and original structure meet, the wall was recessed slightly to highlight a clear separation between the structures.
An unexpected challenge of this project was a massive structural repair to the foundation. Situated in expanding clay soil that creates strong pressure, the piers supporting the school were built in the 1930s. Lacking the strength of today’s piers, they had failed, and were buckling the slab in areas. Workers excavated, sometimes by hand, deep under existing floors to build micropiles beside the original piers to re-support the structure and re-flatten floors.
The team was tasked with shifting the weight of the entire building to the newly installed micropiles, without damaging the exterior façade or stressing the building to its yield point. They successfully transferred the load to the new piles and kept all architectural details intact. Only minor anticipated repairs to interior plaster cracks were required.
To mitigate the risk of damage, Perkins+Will utilized cutting-edge technology to create a three-dimensional laser scan of the existing school before starting construction. This precaution meant that, if necessary, the team had the necessary data to restore any aspect of the structure to its original state.
Another project illustrating the nuances of historic renovation was the transformation of Fort Worth’s Nash Hardware Building into the Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA). To adhere to Fort Worth’s Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission guidelines, the Dallas office of Perkins+Will worked diligently to preserve the exterior detailing of the 77,000-square-foot building, built in 1910. They drew the industrial character of the façade inside, through the application of raw finishes and exposed ductwork.
This industrial nature served a dual purpose—it reinforced the technical character of the school’s programs and allowed designers to install modern structural and mechanical systems without sacrificing limited floor-to-floor space. The team updated legacy services and removed hazardous materials like lead pipes and asbestos, creating a safe place for students without sacrificing the building’s character.
The first single-gender school in Fort Worth’s public school district, YWLA was designed to empower female leaders, with an emphasis on STEM study. To energize the educational environment, Perkins+Will incorporated distinctive branding, using graphics with quotes from inspirational female leaders along the corridors and stairwells to link the spaces and programs together. The school’s motto, “Girls Excelling in Math and Science”—GEMS—was translated into the space through the application of jewel-toned accents.
Approaching historic-renovation projects with a reverence for the past and an eye to the future leads to finely curated schools with a delicate balance of old and new. By carefully reviewing and adapting to preservation guidelines, we can develop design approaches to mesh history with the future and introduce innovative technology to overcome age-related challenges.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.