Dramatic Design Solution Transforms Century-Old Campus “From the Flintstones to the Jetsons”

New Trier High School District 203, in Chicago’s northern suburb, recently celebrated the completion of a large-scale, multi-phase replacement project on their main campus. The new structure replaces three aging and inefficient buildings that had been added over the years to meet the needs of the 117-year-old district, which serves approximately 4,000 students. The 275,000-square-foot new addition almost doubles the amount of usable space within the same footprint.

Wight & Company’s involvement in this project began in 2013, when the firm was asked to participate in a design competition to reimagine the flagship campus for one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed public schools. Recognizing the ­­fact that nearly 100 percent of New Trier graduates continue on to college, Wight crafted a design solution that gives these college-bound scholars an educational and cultural experience that mirrors a university environment. 

At the heart of the vision was a five-story concourse that floods the building with daylight and provides connection between the historic old school and the modern addition via pedestrian bridges at each level. Linda Yonke, who served as New Trier’s superintendent throughout the multi-year project, described that winning solution as “an exceptional blending of old and new.”

Wight’s planning and design work helped the district win voter support for a referendum that provided most of the funding for the $103-million project. Wight worked closely with Pepper Construction to bring the vision to life. The firms developed a complex construction schedule to guide the work. Key among the district’s requirements were ensuring the safety of students and allowing the school to offer its full program of classes and extracurricular activities throughout the multi-year construction process.

During Phase One, the school’s 1931 Tech Arts building was demolished, and the first section of the multi-level addition was constructed. This new wing of the addition includes a new student cafeteria, library, culinary lab, and applied arts and art classrooms, and is topped off with a green roof and outdoor terraces.

During Phase Two, which began in mid-2016, the 1912 Cafeteria and 1950 Music Building were demolished. In their place, Wight and Pepper completed the massive addition, adding new science labs, intradisciplinary classrooms, AV/multimedia labs, music rehearsal spaces, arts studios, two theatres and an art gallery. Overall, the addition includes 29 new academic classrooms and a broad array of flexible spaces that foster creativity, collaboration, and student exploration. The “new” New Trier features a number of unique spaces, including: 

  • A dramatic gathering stair that seamlessly transitions between the ground floor cafeteria and the library commons directly above
  • Innovative applied arts/maker spaces with names like “The Design Sandbox” and “The Fab Lab,“ for engineering, architecture, automotive, and design classes 
  • Interconnected visual arts studios for drawing, painting, ceramics, and photography, with direct access to landscaped outdoor roof terraces 
  • A help desk modeled after Apple’s “Genius Bar,” where students and staff can get technical support for their devices
  • A “culinary court” with a hands-on food lab and interactive teaching station
  • A “black box” drama theatre featuring a transparent wall that puts rehearsals and stagecraft on display in the student concourse
  • Expansive instrumental and choral rehearsal facilities, along with a suite of recording studios

Wight’s team, led by Kevin Havens, executive vice president/director of design, provided architectural and engineering services. Havens describes the approach as “a balancing act,” as they sought to deliver a forward-looking solution on a campus that hadn’t been significantly altered in 60 years. “The school sits within an established neighborhood of historic homes, so we knew our design couldn’t turn its back on tradition. Rather, we tried to set the stage for the next chapter in New Trier’s story by blending a traditional exterior expression with a modern and transparent educational environment that puts learning on display,” said Havens.

A dedication ceremony for the new building drew students, parents, faculty, and administrators who have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the new building. Yonke overheard the excited reaction to the transformation from one student, who remarked “This is like going from The Flintstones to The Jetsons!”

Wight served as design architect and architect of record on the New Trier project. In addition, Wight provided interior design and structural, civil and MEP engineering services. Other key partners on the project included Schuler Shook Theatre Planners/Lighting Designers, Threshold Acoustics and Pamela Self Landscape Design.

More information can be found at www.wightco.com.