You Can Always Hear the Music

Committed to teaching academics artfully, and the arts academically, the curriculum at Stivers School for the Arts, in Dayton, OH, is very demanding. Students take a full range of academic classes while concentrating on one or more fine arts or performing arts areas. This formula has proven extremely effective. Stivers students, of whom more than half coming from families living below the federal poverty line, perform at or above the level of students at some of the highest-performing suburban schools in its region. In the past eight years, the school has graduated nine Bill and Melinda Gates scholars and sent graduates to schools like Brown, NYU, Oberlin, Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, Spellman, Hampton University, and many other national, regional, and local universities.

To provide facilities for the Stivers program, the Dayton Public Schools proposed demolishing the 1908 Collegiate Gothic building and replacing it with a totally new facility. The Stivers community, led by the parent- and community-based seedling Foundation, with support from the Stivers Alumni Association, urged the district to preserve the historic structure and to renovate and build additions. The grand old building held deep memories and offered spacious areas for Stivers' ever-burgeoning arts program. It also offered a comfortable physical complement to the program’s highly creative, even Bohemian, character.

As the district endorsed reuse of the building, the seedling Foundation arranged it to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places to recognize its architectural significance. Initial plans called for upgrading academic spaces and expanding the fine and performing arts facilities. The project scope called for renovation of 100,000 sq. ft. in the original building and construction of 100,000 sq. ft. of new space on a very tight urban site of approximately seven acres.

The architects were challenged to update building spaces and systems and double the size with an addition, while maintaining the beloved historic character, blending with the original architecture, and providing meaningful circulation to define the program inter-relationships. The work also was required to comply with the statewide Ohio Schools Design Manual and fit within a strict budget. The district rebuilding program includes rebuilding neighborhood schools that offer community-based facilities. And, finally, integration of the arts programs with academia was paramount to the Stivers faculty, to create a space within which you“always hear the music.”

A primary strategy for a successful renovation is to maximize the reuse of existing elements. The historic building is a four-story structure with double-loaded corridors flanked with classrooms. An early design decision placed most of the classrooms within the historic structure. With minor alterations, these classrooms are being refurbished to serve another 100 years. Hardwood floors, historic ceramic mosaic tile corridors, wood-framed chalkboards, high ceilings, and diffuse glass transoms that bring borrowed light into otherwise lightless corridors were all retained and reused to wonderful advantage.

This reuse minimized construction costs and maintained the desirable character of the interiors. The large double-hung original windows had been replaced with opaque transoms and small aluminum sliding sashes. These were removed and replaced with new windows similar to the historic two-over-two sash of the original building. These new windows give the building exterior a look drawn from history. On the interior, these windows provide a flood of natural daylighting that enlivens and energizes spaces throughout the building.

Selective demolition of a 1960s gymnasium and instrumental music areas at the north side of the four-story structure allowed for extension of the building’s u-shaped circulation corridor into the new addition. This design move proved critical to enabling a strong circulation that weaves old and new together.

Reprogramming of spaces at this first floor corridor connection was also critical to fulfilling the design program. A boiler room, originally housed in the center of the first floor footprint, was relocated to a new mechanical plant area, and this space, centrally located within the academic classrooms, was combined with an old gymnasium space to create a new media center.

The media center profits from the renovation of two large-gabled skylights. Designed to illuminate the old gymnasium, they now provide profuse and diffuse daylight into the new media center. An upper level reading area rings the stack and circulation room with geometry evocative of the running track that was once suspended from the ceiling of the gymnasium.

Relocation of student dining from the fourth floor to the first floor of the addition significantly improves access for deliveries and disposals; and, more importantly, it positions this area as the appropriate center of student life. The dining area serves as a multi-purpose space. It is designed to be open to the circulation corridor, defined only by a change in level to accommodate exterior grades and loading dock elevations. Placed at the transition from new to old, adjacent to the media center and the new fixed-seat theatre, and with large surfaces available for display of student artwork, this area promises to be a center teeming with vitality throughout the day and night.

Designers chose to utilize the new spaces for program activities that did not fit well within the historic building. The new addition houses larger spaces for instrumental music, dance, sculpture, and ceramics, a 600-seat, fixed-seat auditorium, and two gymnasiums. These spaces all require larger, column-free expanses and first-floor access that was unavailable in the original building. By locating them in the new construction, the programming requirements can be met without major disruption of the original building.

The addition also allowed relocation of the administrative offices that had been awkwardly located on the second floor. The new addition establishes a relocated main entryway. The new entry accommodates vehicular pick up and drop off, full accessibility to the front door, and safe access to student parking without crossing vehicular traffic lanes.

The ceremonial original front entrance continues to function as a special space within the building, and a major vertical circulation space. The new entry symbolically and functionally collects the academic and arts administration on either side of a central entry hall that leads past a new art gallery on the way to the entry to the new theatre.

Disproving the conventional construction wisdom, costs for the renovated areas came in at roughly two-thirds of the cost for the new construction. Although the project was bid at a time of drastically spiking prices for steel and copper, bids fell within allowable budget limits, due in large part to the extensive amount of renovated areas versus new construction. By skillfully blending old and new, the resulting project provides more building than would have been possible under the established budget, and maintains a wonderful historic structure that will continue to inspire those students to“always hear the music”.

Jeff Wray is president of Jeff Wray Architects of Dayton, Ohio, a firm specializing in restoration projects. Jeff is principal architect for the Stivers School for the Arts restoration and additions.