It's a decision that most education institutions have to wrestle with at some point: When is a building too old to continue as a viable learning environment? The question seems straightforward, but schools and universities who have traveled this path know that numerous factors may come into play that complicate the issue.
Does the community have a sentimental attachment to a school facility that make replacement problematic? Is any facility funding available? Are funds likely to be more available for renovation or new construction? Will a renovated facility be able to accommodate changing educational needs that were not envisioned when it was built?
The best path, it seems, is when the desires of a school’s community match with the educational needs of the institution and the financial capacity to carry out a project.
That’s what has happened in Alameda, Calif., where a landmark building is once again home to high school students, and Lowell, Mass., where an iconic university facility has been refurbished to serve the same purpose it did more than a century ago.
Back to School
Students arrived for classes at the newly reopened Historic Alameda High School in August 2019. For those who were high school students the year before, their journey covered just a few hundred feet from an- other building on campus. But for the school district and community members that viewed Historic Alameda High as an iconic structure in the city’s downtown, the return to Historic Alameda High was the culmination of a journey of more than four decades.
The high school was built in 1925 in downtown Alameda. Eight years later, California lawmakers passed the Field Act, which established earthquake safety standards for school facilities in the state, and the district quickly determined that Alameda High’s construction fell short of those safety standards.
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, the Alameda district leaders tried to address the problem with a variety of proposals; some called for bolstering the stability of the high school buildings, and others advocated tearing down the facilities and building new spaces that met seismic standards.
By 1977, plans were in place to raze the parts of the campus deemed as unsafe, but newly elected school board members hired a new superintendent, and they halted demolition plans and vowed to preserve the historic campus. That year, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places
Still, officials concluded that the main high school building on Central Avenue was not safe for students, and classes were relocated in 1978 to newly construct- ed classrooms a few hundred feet to the southwest on Encinal Avenue.
For the next three decades, classes were held in the Encinal Avenue facility, and the district used part of the old building as administrative offices. In addition, the city’s public library and adult education classes were housed in the space for several years.
Various attempts to upgrade the old campus were proposed, and some improvements were made, but the seismic safety problems identified more than 70 years earlier were still unresolved. In 2012, architects and structural engineers who examined the building concluded that the building was at risk of collapsing in a strong earthquake.
“There was a danger of the walls separating from the structure and toppling over,” says Mark Quattrocchi, principal architect with Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, which designed the restoration of the school. “The floors and the walls could pancake.”
The dire warning brought once more to the fore- front the question that had been lingering for generations. What was to become of the beloved, but dangerous building?
In the short run, the district had to move administrative offices and adult education classes out of the facility. Then, to contain the damage and debris that could result if the building did, in fact, collapse, the district surrounded the old building with a security measure that detractors dubbed “the ugly brown fence.”
Its presence led some to fear that it was the first step in demolishing the building, and many criticized it as an eyesore that represented the community’s in- ability to take action.
But to Quattrocchi, who recommended that the fence be installed, it was a critical requirement for the safety of anyone who would be close to the building, especially high school students elsewhere on the campus.
“It was not pretty, but it allowed me to sleep at night,” Quattrocchi says. “It was a necessary evil, but it was necessary.”
With the fence in place and immediate safety concerns assuaged, the Alameda district held public meetings to get input on what should be done with the building.
“The idea of tearing it down was just painful,” says Susan Davis, senior manager of community affairs for the Alameda district. “It is beautiful and iconic and seen as an asset for downtown Alameda.”
Preserving the building was one question. Another question—preserved for what?
“We could save it seismically, but the question was, ‘is it worth it?’’’ says Quattrocchi. “Would it be able to accommodate the modern educational program?”
The answer was yes. People in Alameda wanted the building saved and returned to use as a school.
“We took into consideration the community’s love and devotion to it,” Quattrocchi says. “The community said it’s worth it to us to restore it.”
The 100,000-square-foot building underwent a $60 million upgrade—paid for with money from a 2014 bond issue, as well as state funds for seismic improvements.
The exterior of the building was restored to look as it did when it was built more than 90 years ago.
“The outside was sacrosanct,” Quattrocchi says. “The main lobby and corridors were kept the same.”
A Strong Foundation
To meet seismic safety standards, workers drilled 6,000 holes into the ground and injected grout to stabilize the foundation and solidify the soil below the building. They removed 2.4 million pounds of concrete and 900,000 pounds of wood from the facility, the district says.
The upgrades also bolstered structural stability by taking off the roof and placing steel braces along the walls that were bolted to new concrete foundations. Steel piers are also supplementing original concrete columns.
The restored building provides 37 classrooms and 11 labs. Walls and partitions that had been added over the years were removed, and spaces were reconfigured as classrooms that meet modern day size requirements and accommodate 21st-century teaching methods.
The restored building has been outfitted with up- to-date technology. The district says 19 miles of conduit and wiring were laid to upgrade electrical and communications systems.
Crown molding and 350 wood windows were re- stored. Elements that were too damaged or deteriorated were replaced with new pieces crafted to match the original.
The result is a building that conveys the grandeur of a community landmark while offering students a modern learning environment.
“It’s now a great mix of the old and the new,” Quattrocchi says.
Return to Its Roots
In 1897, Lowell Normal School a two-year college for teachers in Low- ell, Mass., opened in a four-story Beaux Arts-style building. Over the years, Lowell Normal School became Lowell State College, then University of Lowell and finally, in 1991, became University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Throughout its various incarnations, the education institution now known as UMass Lowell relied on its original building as a key classroom facility. Renamed Coburn Hall in the 1970s in honor of Frank Coburn, the first principal at Lowell Normal School, the building is the oldest on the campus.
When the university decided to re-introduce a bachelor’s degree program for teachers, it seemed an ideal time to return the College of Education to its roots in Coburn Hall.
But with well over 100 years of wear and tear, Coburn Hall needed a dramatic makeover to accommodate spaces for training 21st-century teachers. So the university opted to take the building out of circulation for a year and a half and embarked on a $47 million renovation and expansion.
Students returned to the restored Coburn Hall in January 2020. The building houses the university’s College of Education and its Psychology Department.
“The richness of the building has now been revealed,” says Paul Viccica, a principal architect at CBT Architects, which designed the project. “The full renovation and addition have now monumentally transformed the building into a vital and energized learning place.”
The bones of the 120-year-old building were solid—“it was built like a battleship,” Viccica says—but like most facilities of that vintage, it lacked technolo- gy and had accessibility problems. Many of the spaces were showing their age.
“Things were missing or broken,” Viccica says. “It’s a miracle what you discover when you start cleaning up.”
One of the things discovered was a mural from the 1930s of students and teachers that was painted over in some previous renovation of the building’s second- floor ballroom.
“To experience a mural like this, it’s something that new buildings don’t have,” Viccica says. “Why would someone paint over that?”
Besides restoring Coburn Hall’s original 60,000 square feet, the project included a 14,000-square-foot addition on the rear of the building with colors and aesthetics that complement the existing structure, Viccica says.
Adding an elevator has brought accessibility to the entire facility, and landscaping was regraded to make the reconfigured main entrance accessible to all.
Classrooms are on the lower level and first floor; the first floor also has faculty offices. The second floor had been a grand ballroom that was largely inaccessible; it has been split into flexible event space and seminar and meeting rooms. The psychology department has fac- ulty offices and research labs on the third floor.
The original terrazzo flooring on the first floor has been restored after being hidden or decades beneath tile. A stained-glass window in the lobby has been moved down the hall to make way for a large picture window, which provides a view into a model elementary school classroom.
“It is an amazing transformation,” Viccica says.