Uncovering the Past

Built in the late 1920s, Hillsborough High School is the oldest school in Hillsborough County (FL) and one of the longest-standing schools in the Southeast United States. The Gothic-Revival-Style building, designed by the prolific architect Francis James Kennard, has both a rich architectural history and a background of academic excellence.

By the late 1970s, Hillsborough High School had undergone several considerable renovations. Mechanical systems were retrofitted to the original structure and had resulted in significantly lowered ceilings. In some cases, corridors were as low as 7 ft. 6 in. Acoustical panels were installed over ornate plasterwork and many windows were completely bricked over. Historic fixtures were removed or hidden, and original wood floors were covered with vinyl. These renovations had concealed, damaged, or completely removed many of the historically significant architectural details. According to Cathy Valdes, Hillsborough County Public Schools Chief Facilities Officer and a graduate of Hillsborough High School,“The 1970s renovation had a different purpose. There is a very different thought today on restoring the rich history of the school."

In 2003, the district realized that the Hillsborough facility was in need of major updates to meet the spatial needs of the school’s 2000-plus student body. The district elected to perform renovations with a two-fold purpose: 1) to preserve the oldest school in the district and the campus’ contribution to the historical neighborhood in which it resides and 2) provide a cost-effective solution to the growing needs of the district.“It is more costly when you look at restoring a historic structure. But there is no way that you could rebuild a school of that quality with today’s budgets. The school plays such a meaningful role in the community,” said Cathy Valdes. Subsequently, Wilder Architecture and Allstate Construction were hired to design, plan, and construct the renovations.


Working diligently to preserve as much of the school’s original character as possible, the project team collaborated to create a durable, state-of-the-art educational facility. Included in the team’s efforts was the rehabilitation of the school’s iconic clock tower. By project’s completion, the tower was returned to working order — complete with a new carillon that can be heard throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

Infill brick panels introduced in the ‘70s were removed and windows reinstalled. Dropped ceilings were removed to reveal 15-ft. ceilings, barrel vaults, and column capitals. The hardwood and terrazzo floors were uncovered and refinished. Original light fixtures were refurbished. Stained glass windows were refurbished and reinstalled behind a protective layer of laminated glass.

Great care was taken to ensure that the renovated facility would function at today’s environmental standards. Updated lighting fixtures, replicating the original 1920’s fixtures, were installed in areas where the original fixtures were either missing or beyond repair. The ceilings in some cases were slightly lowered for the sake of energy efficiency.

Items such as exposed ductwork to meet the air conditioning needs were introduced into the buildings with great care. Computer datalines were installed in existing walls and ceilings. “We went through annuals from the ‘30s and ‘40s and talked to people who went there,” Wilder said, in an effort to effectively return the high school to its former glory.

New wooden seats replaced the existing plastic auditorium chairs. “The red and black plastic never worked and were out of place with the restored grandeur of the auditorium and the stained glass windows,” said Cathy Valdes, speaking of her favorite part of the renovation project.


According to School Board Member Jack Lamb, PhD, “The community and the 1,500 people in attendance at the rededication of Hillsborough High School were so pleased that we restored the building to one of the finest school buildings in the United States.” According to Cathy Valdes, “Everyone is absolutely elated with the outcome, it is so evident that the school holds such a strong place in the community and the enrichment of it’s students’ experience. I hope that today’s students begin to feel that they are part of that rich history,” Valdes said.

The school’s transformation may be best expressed in the words of former student, Beverly Chambers. “As a graduate of the Class of ’58, I had only visited my alma mater once a few years back, and at that time was extremely disappointed on how much it had changed over the years. The beautiful landscaping was a mass of trailers, the halls had metal doors and cased-in windows, corridors were closed off, and it wasn’t the school I so fondly remembered… Then while visiting friends in Tampa, I was asked to attend the [Hillsborough High] dedication. Oh, my goodness, my school was back! I can not believe the transformation that was performed!”

The project was awarded an Honor Award for Architecture by AIA Tampa Bay for Historic Renovation. Jury members commenting that the architect had an “understanding of the original intent and rigor of this building and embraced the corrected features with a contemporary relevance simultaneously with a historical relevance…the building is more like the original and more like a contemporary building at the same time.” Jury members went on to applaud the entire project team stating the Award was an “honor for the school board as much as the architect for their ability to devote resources and time to this building.”

In the words of Larry Wilder, AIA, “when the renovations were completed, the building sighed.”

Quick Facts:

  • 172,458 renovated square feet
  • 1,500 light fixtures replaced
  • 4,500 gallons of paint applied
  • 31,788 square feet of original terrazzo refinished
  • 41,415 square feet of wood flooring refinished
  • 16,000 square feet of brick removed from original window openings
  • 840 new windows installed
  • 950 wood auditorium seats installed
  • More than 100,000 square feet of acoustical tile removed
  • 80,000 square feet of ceiling tile replaced

The complete renovation totaled $16.9 million and was completed over 3 years.