Preserving History, Making Progress

Older communities cherish their historic buildings, especially the early 20th-century high schools that hold special meaning to generations of graduates. Although most of these schools are architectural and cultural landmarks, they’re often in disrepair, require expensive upkeep and have limited space. Their boards and administrators face difficult questions in determining how to best serve the educational needs of 21st-century students.

• Should the aging schools be demolished, renovated or preserved?

• Which factors are most important in making this assessment?

• What can be done to preserve a school’s cultural heritage yet still create learning spaces properly aligned with modern program needs?

Too often, school districts base their decisions using only facility analysis tools, cost-benefit studies and lifespan evaluations. This approach ignores the reality that countless community members are emotionally invested in what happens to the local high school. Districts that fail to take these community values into account will likely encounter strong resistance when trying to pass a funding referendum.

When significant building changes are imperative, school planners and architects need to find innovative, cost-effective ways to regenerate their schools. We have found that the most successful design solutions are community-driven efforts able to preserve a building’s historical character and create excitement for the future. Following are case studies of three Chicago-area schools that took different paths to accomplish these goals.

York Community H.S.: Moving Forward by Celebrating the Past

By the late 1990s, York (Elmhurst School District 205) was a hodgepodge of additions and patchwork modifications wrapped around the original 1920s core building. Though the school had a long history of academic excellence, its crumbling facilities were inadequate for modern educational delivery to 2,500 students. These shortcomings, however, were not immediately apparent to the community, which had previously rejected building improvement programs.

“People didn’t believe the problems were so significant. We heard many say that, ‘if it was good enough for us, it’s good enough for these kids,’” says consultant Pat Sumrow, the district’s former assistant superintendent.“In planning to introduce another referendum, we felt it was vital to educate the community and get their input on what they felt was most important.”

The impetus (and inspiration) for York’s renaissance was a series of“Town Hall” meetings in which district administration officials and the Wight design team reached out to parent groups, senior citizens, civic leaders and other community organizations. To demonstrate the need for changes, student ambassadors led hundreds of tours throughout the school.

This process of engaging and listening to the community (as well as faculty and students) proved invaluable. The key finding was that most did not want a sleek, modern high school. Rather, they wanted to preserve what they loved about York — the traditional architecture, inviting courtyards and the stately look (brick façades and large lawn area) reminiscent of a 19th-century college campus.

These insights infused the development of the school’s Master Plan, which masterfully blended the old with the new. For example, analysis of archived drawings and school memorabilia revealed the finest of the early buildings was almost completely obscured behind numerous additions. The architects’ design uncovered and restored these early façades, whose details also inspired the design of the new sections.

“Our design strategy was quite ambitious in that we were basically proposing the demolition of about half of the school,” says Sumrow. “But this time, people had a better understanding of why we needed to do this. Just as important, the design was right on target in reflecting the spirit and feeling of the community.”

In the spring of 2000, 75 percent of voters approved the district’s $95-million building program. The architectural solution was executed in two phases through four years. Phase One featured the construction of a new 300,000-sq.-ft. academic wing with exterior brickwork, windows, piers, decorative medallions and limestone materials that emulated sections of the original buildings. It also had up-to-date classrooms, labs, studios and seminar rooms with high-performance wireless and fiber connectivity technology.

Phase Two included restoration of the original 1920s structure, plus the construction of a new athletic wing and student commons. The latter was a vivid example of how a creative design concept can meld community values and architecture into a timeless solution. At one time, York had an outdoor courtyard where many students congregated, but this area was ignored after it was encircled by all the additions. Today, the exterior of the old courtyard is now part of the interior walls of a new atrium between the library and cafeteria, which once again has become a popular “watering hole” space for students.

“The atrium has become the physical and emotional heart of the school, just as the courtyard was years ago,” says Sumrow.

Instead of a disjointed collection of aging additions totaling 495,000 sq. ft., York now has 614,000 sq. ft. of new or completely renovated space. This project received the 2004 Merit Award for Rehab Construction from the Chicago Building Congress — the first time this prestigious honor was given to a suburban school.

Oak Park-River Forest H.S.: Modernizing While Preserving Aesthetic Integrity

Built in 1907, Oak Park-River Forest (OPRF) has an illustrious alumni roster that includes Ernest Hemingway, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and actor Dan Castellenetta (the voice of Homer Simpson). Oak Park also is renowned for its homes built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. With so many architects and architecture aficionados living in the community, any efforts to modernize the education environment had to be sensitive to the school’s architectural heritage.

The school district and Wight met this challenge by developing a 10-year master plan to upgrade selected areas annually without altering the facilities’ essential structure or character. The basic approach integrated design-focused external enhancements with substantive improvements to the interior space and infrastructure. For example, the renovation of the 1924 football stadium highlighted its historic character with masonry restoration, metal ironwork and exterior lighting. Its grandstand structure facilities were modernized with new ventilation, new locker rooms, new coaching offices and expanded storage space. This project received the Historic Preservation Rehabilitation Award from the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission in 2003.

A 10-year plan is a guidebook, not a blueprint, and OPRF recognized the importance of being flexible to accommodate unexpected problems as well as needs not identified in the original program.

One example of the school’s flexible approach occurred when OPRF administrators adapted their implementation priorities in response to the concerns of local swim clubs and community members regarding the school’s 80-year-old pools. The $1-million renovation of the separate boys’ and girls’ pools featured full masonry tuckpointing of the original glazed brick, refurbishing the original plaster relief statuettes, painting and fully restoring the plaster ceilings. This external “face-lift” was complemented by infrastructure enhancements suitable for today’s aquatics environment, including new athletic offices, sound systems and a modern HVAC system with humidification capabilities.

Whenever economically feasible, OPRF maintained the aesthetic integrity of the design, such as repairing its roof with the same kind of clay tiles used a century ago. Other deferred maintenance areas targeted for improvements included additional HVAC systems, fire alarms, lighting and asbestos abatement, and plans are in place to selectively modernize learning spaces, such as the science labs.

Joliet Central H.S.: Building a Bridge to the Future

With its impressive Gothic towers, Joliet Central has been a prominent landmark in this former steel town for more than a century. The five-building campus, however, was no longer adequate for the school’s 2,600-plus students, let alone the projected increase in enrollment. Located near the downtown area, the main building is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, which meant that any renovations had to be approved by appropriate government agencies.

To make certain the district would continue to provide students with a first-class educational experience, school officials commissioned Wight to prepare expansion feasibility studies (which also included the district’s second campus). During this collaborative visioning and planning process, the team talked extensively to faculty and staff, as well as key alumni, to better understand the facility’s limitations and its users' wants and needs.

“We were committed to preserving the integrity of the original design,” says Paul Swanstrom, superintendent of Joliet Township High School District 204. “But we definitely needed more space, so we had to balance aesthetic considerations with what was practical, affordable and most beneficial to the students.”

Wight worked closely with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield for approval of its master plan and then launched the first phase of Joliet Central’s expansion with four major projects. The largest involved replacing a 1950s shop building across the street from the core structure with a two-story educational annex dedicated to mathematics and computer literacy. The new facility featured materials and design elements (e.g., archways for the doors) comparable to the main school. Since alumni groups played a prominent advisory role in this project, the annex was named after two 1922 graduates — the late Arthur G. Smith and his wife Vera, a 97-year-old retired teacher who still lives in Joliet.

A second major project was replacing some 1,500 windows to provide better insulation, which required adherence to the Historic Registry's guidelines. The third project was a Vocational Technology Lab addition with an auto shop and welding labs. The final and most visually arresting project was the construction of a Gothic-style pedestrian bridge. This walkway over the street figuratively spans generations by connecting the century-old school with the most modern technology in the new educational annex.

“We were pleased that we were able to carry forward the design elements from the old to the new,” says Swanstrom. “This sets the tone for how we want to approach future renovations and additions.”

Final Word

A student’s high school days are fleeting yet memorable, those times between adolescence and adulthood when they begin to find their way into the bigger world. Many historic schools are likewise in transition, vivid artifacts of the past yet needing to grow and evolve. To keep these schools relevant, administrators must overcome considerable obstacles that include budget and space constraints and aging infrastructures. As we have seen, however, school districts that engage their communities in the planning process and creatively balance practical considerations with deep respect for the building’s aesthetic value can transform these cultural treasures into modern facilities where students can benefit from the latest educational tools, technologies and best practices.

Brad Paulsen is leader of the K-12 Education Practice for Wight & Company, Darien, IL, which provides design, construction and civil engineering services for public and private sector projects. Paulsen has provided planning, design, construction and design-build services for more than 80 individual school building projects in Illinois and throughout the Midwest.

Brad Paulsen is leader of the K-12 Education Prawctice for Wight & Company of Darien, IL.