Skip navigation

New Life

When it opened in 1938, the Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, Va., was hailed as the first vocational high school built in the city for African-American students. Some 60 years later, the building still stood as a neighborhood landmark, but it was a tattered and crumbling edifice ailing from more than a decade of neglect.

Instead of students roaming the halls, the only regular visitors to the building were the homeless people who broke into the vacant facility seeking shelter. After sitting empty and ignored for 10 years, the school's condition in 1999 was miserable, and its future was uncertain.

But where some people saw a decaying eyesore, many educators, preservationists, architects and neighborhood activists saw a once-impressive building that could be resuscitated to recapture its past glory and upgraded to serve the needs of modern students.

“It was quite salvageable,” says Charles Piper, an architect with BCWH Architects in Richmond. “It was in remarkably good condition.”

In 2001, after a $23 million restoration, the building reopened as the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, a regional school that serves 13 districts in the Richmond area.

Across the nation, schools and universities are faced with aging facilities that need extensive renovation if they are to continue to provide a hospitable learning environment for students. In some cases, administrators decide that constructing a new facility makes the most sense; but for other schools, restoring an aging building can be a cost-effective and community-pleasing way to preserve history and provide modern features that create an educationally appropriate setting.

Hard choices

Renovation or new construction? It's a dilemma that educators and facility managers have had to wrestle with for years. But as many school buildings constructed in the baby-boom years of the 1950s and 1960s creep closer to the end of their useful lives, administrators responsible for their upkeep — or disposal — will have to bring their communities to consensus about what to do. For each community, different factors go into the equation. In some cases, state and local guidelines will dictate whether restoration is economically feasible.

“Basically, a logical process has to unfold to resolve these issues,” says William DeJong, chief executive officer of DeJong, an educational planning firm in Dublin, Ohio. “There aren't any hard and fast rules. It's a lot of common sense.”

Among the issues school officials have to consider:

  • Will there be enough students to justify restoring an aging school?

  • Is the facility in good enough physical condition to warrant a restoration?

  • Beyond its physical condition, can the facility be renovated to support modern education programs?

  • Can the school system afford the costs of a renovation?

  • Does the community have a special connection to a facility that leads them to prefer restoration to new construction?

“With a 1910 building, I'm inclined to say we ought to save that building,” says DeJong. “Then the question is whether it should be saved as a public school building, or a different use in the school system, or something like housing or shopping.

“Schools from the '50s, '60s and '70s — this is a more difficult topic. Many of these buildings do not have any type of architectural significance. They often were built with cheap materials and built only to last 40 years or so.”

Even if administrators decide that a building cannot be salvaged as a functioning school, the facility still may have value for a school or university, or the community at large. School systems may choose to convert old schoolhouses into administrative offices, or sell buildings to private developers who transform them into offices or residences.

Other uses

The facility that houses administrative offices for the Rochester, Mich., Community School District once was the home of a high school, and later a middle school. District officials determined that the building no longer was suitable for a school, but the facility was too important to the community to give up.

“The students deserved to be in a new building,” says Deb Walter, director of facility operations in the Rochester, Mich., district. “But the old building had such historical significance. It has all the old graduation pictures from the early 1900s on the walls. Plus, it was in a central location. It had a lot to offer the community.”

Initially, the district tried to place the administrative offices inside the old school without much renovation, but that didn't work out so well.

“To get from one part of the building to the boardroom, you had to walk outside,” says Steve Andridge, the district's facility engineer. “So we did a complete gut to the brick wall and had a total renovation. Structurally, the building is very sound, with thick masonry load-bearing walls. It should serve the district well for the next 30 years.”

When a school district or university can't find a use for an older property, private developers often step forward to preserve historically important structures. In St. Louis, school officials had decided in 2003 that they no longer needed the former Theresa School. They were on the verge of selling it to a local developer who was planning to clear the land and build a drug store. School board members backed away from that proposal when they learned of its historical significance — the 1905-built facility was one of many local schools designed by architect William B. Ittner.

Subsequently, the facility was sold to another developer, who plans to convert the building to loft apartments and promises to keep the character of the building intact.

Happy coincidence

The Maggie Walker facility in Richmond was closed as a school facility in 1989 and sat unused for a decade. To Piper and others exploring a restoration of the building in 1999, the school appeared to have been abruptly abandoned. “There were still assignments written on the chalkboard,” Piper recalls. “The library was still filled with books.”

But the facility had not been frozen in time. Ten years of neglect and vandalism had left its toll.

“Most of the auditorium had been damaged by fire,” says Piper. “Vandals had stripped the building of copper wire, and the copper roof flashings. The roof leaked, and there was extensive water damage. All of the library books were ruined. There was mold. The school is near railroad tracks and the interstate, and homeless people were living there. The walls were covered with graffiti.”

And yet, beneath all the gunk and dust and damage, architects and educators could detect the faint heartbeat of a school facility clinging to life. What it needed was a student body and school community to restore it to health.

“The revival was a happy coincidence,” says Piper.

The Governor's School for Government and International Studies was sharing space with a high school a couple of miles away. “It was packed to the gills, and looking for a home,” says Piper.

Because of its age and historical significance, the Maggie Walker building was eligible for state and federal restoration funds and tax credits. Piper says those funds made up about a third of the renovation costs; another third came from the school districts that supplied students to the Governor's School, and the remaining third will be covered by private donations.

The restoration preserved the building's exterior look and several key interior spaces — the main corridor, the auditorium and some stairways. The designers had more leeway in making changes to make sure the school could accommodate modern education programs.

“We had considerable liberty to integrate technology, and we made some modest additions on the site,” says Piper.

Because so many stakeholders were involved in the restoration, collaboration and cooperation were vital as the work progressed.

“It was a challenging arrangement answering to all the different school districts, to the developer and the staff of the school itself,” says Piper. “You have to have a flexible attitude.”

That outlook also helped those involved as they confronted the daunting task of transforming a discarded, deteriorating facility into a modern educational environment.

“By the time we were done, we had dealt with just about every potential problem you could have: asbestos, lead paint, mold,” says Piper. “If you're doing this kind of renovation, assume you're going to run into some unexpected problems.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

A sense of formality

The student concourse at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., had the potential to be “an absolutely beautiful space,” says college president Terry Barnes, but that potential had gone unfilled after years of use and abuse from students.

“It was dirty and unpainted, and the furniture was old,” says Barnes. “It was lined with dozens of vending machines. It was allowed to become a hangout for students, and the students were not taking care of it. The space had become non-specific and undefined.”

Barnes envisioned a makeover of the concourse, which was built in the 1960s, so that it would make a good impression on visitors and prospective students to the two-year college.

“We wanted to give it a sense of formality,” he says. “For prospective students and their parents, this is the first place they see on campus.”

That meant moving the vending machines out of the concourse, installing carpeting and oak crown molding, bringing in upscale furniture, painting the walls, adding plants, and putting in computer workstations.

The first floor became a student-services area, and the mezzanine area of the space was gutted and 35 faculty offices were constructed. “We want students using the concourse to visit quietly and be engaged in learning,” says Barnes.

For students seeking informality and “hanging-out” space, the college urged students to make better use of the student union and nearby amenities such as a bookstore, sandwich shop and fitness center.

“We were looking to change the culture of the concourse,” says Barnes. “The message to the students is, ‘This is nicer than you've had, so take care of it.’”

Is the message getting through?

“I wouldn't say it's achieving all the dreams I had,” says Barnes. “But as new students come in, they'll see it as a new space and won't know how it was before.”

Three tiers

Renovating and restoring a school facility can mean different things to different people. Improvements may address only basic safety issues or they can be comprehensive overhauls of a facility. William DeJong, chief executive officer of the DeJong educational planning firm, categorizes renovation projects by identifying three tiers of restoration.

The first tier is the most basic renovation to keep a facility “warm, safe and dry.” “Basically you are sealing and protecting the building envelope, making sure that there are no roof leaks, that fire alarms are installed and working.” For financially struggling districts, this may be the only feasible approach to renovating facilities.

The second tier addresses a building's interior finishes. “This is where you look at new electrical systems, ceilings, light fixtures, hardware.”

The third tier addresses not just the physical facility needs, but also the educational adequacy of a building. “A building may not have had a cafeteria or a kitchen,” says DeJong. “The administration area may be too small. There may have been no space for special education in the building. It may have ADA-compliance issues.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.