When working with our clients, our goals for a project range far and wide, from giving our clients the space and flexibility to enhance their everyday activities to maximizing efficiency, minimizing cost, and addressing any longstanding maintenance headaches. But despite these, I would argue that our fundamental goal as designers is to positively influence a project’s community through holistic and thoughtful design.
Fort Worth Independent School District’s Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School already had a strong sense of community – and a community that stressed the significance of education. After all, the school’s legacy stems from one of the oldest schools in Fort Worth history, which, at the time, was called the Southside Colored School. Mr. James E. Guinn, a Fort Worth native, became the principal in 1900, and when the city council agreed to build the school its first permanent building, it was named after him – The Guinn School. The original footprint of that building and gymnasium still stand at the Southwest corner of East Rosedale Street and I-35W, in the heart of the historic Near Southside District, just across the highway from Van Zandt-Guinn campus.
Following the new facility’s completion, the school has adopted a new legacy. The replacement facility will welcome students from the existing Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary as well as students from the storied I.M. Terrell Elementary. Formerly known as I.M. Terrell High School, the school closed down in 1973 during racial integration of Fort Worth’s schools, and reopened in 1998 as I.M. Terrell Elementary School. The elementary school was best known for the fellowship of its active and proud alumni base.
Unfortunately, that community lacked a facility properly suited to meet their changing academic needs while reinforcing a sense of pride. The existing facility was the sole remaining underground school in the district and the only source of natural light for the entire school was a pair of skylights over the school’s two stairwells. This was by design—at the time of the school’s construction in the late 1970s, concerns regarding energy costs and national security were escalated. Besides needing dedicated classrooms for music, art, and students with special needs, the school also lacked a dedicated entry. Following a feasibility study that yielded higher-than-anticipated costs to repair existing conditions, Perkins+Will recommended that the district entertain the idea of new construction, which they approved.
Throughout the design process, all decisions were made with purpose, putting staff, students, and surrounding community needs at the top of the list. We continually asked ourselves, “How can we design a building that can help strengthen this community’s culture?” The solution encompasses many features that help accomplish this goal. In contrast to the existing, underground facility, the new, two-story school sits elevated on the southern edge of the site with an orientation that highlights views of the Fort Worth skyline. No space frames this view better than the school’s second level media center. In framing the skyscrapers of the booming city of Fort Worth, we hope that this view gives students a glimpse of their future and helps promote their career aspirations. The gym—once detached from the rest of the school—now anchors the plan at the center of the campus. Displaying the school’s primary color, the bright orange volume acts as a wayfinding beacon, visible throughout the school and the neighborhood.
The outdoor Lab—originally programmed specifically for the art classroom—was internalized and centralized in the plan, allowing it to be visible and accessible to the whole school. It now provides another secure, multipurpose space for the school and encourages interactions between the adjacent art and science classrooms. Between the gym, the media center and the outdoor lab, these unique, gathering spaces of varying sizes offer the school—and the community— flexibility in use.
In many ways, the new facility supports the missions of the school’s two namesakes – K.M Van Zandt and James E. Guinn. In an effort to share their stories, their contributions are highlighted in the design of an interior wall graphic along the school’s main corridors, as well as within the custom perforated canopy in the adjacent outdoor lab. Fort Worth landmarks are also incorporated within the graphic and canopy to help expose students to the history of their City.
Van-Zandt-Guinn Elementary School represents an extensive and proud legacy of public education in Fort Worth, Texas. As designers, we must be mindful of how present day decisions impact long-term communities. The community is proud of who they are and the accomplishments of its talented alumni. The new school’s design matches that pride with a facility that meets their educational needs and helps prepare future-ready students to add to that alumni base – a facility that carves a path for the Van Zandt-Guinn Community to build upon their legacy.