Historic Preservation Renews an Educational Facility

Jan. 9, 2006
Technology and building-system upgrades do work - and work well - in older structures

The site where Hartwell Elementary School sits holds the entire history of Hartwell, GA’s, educational system.

“It’s a historic site for the school system,” says Hart County School System Superintendent Nancy T. Clark, who also happens to chair the Hartwell Historic Preservation Committee. “That’s where the old, old school used to sit.”

The elementary school itself is old. And its age became the center of a debate several years ago: Should the district raze it and build a modern facility, or restore it because of its historic significance to the town and the fact that it and its gymnasium/auditorium building have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986?

The land-locked school was built in 1934 and its gymnasium/auditorium was added in 1939. The school - a wooden structure with brick veneer - boasts stone accents, quoins, a water table, archways, and keystones. The gymnasium, also of wooden construction with brick veneer, echoes many of the main building’s details. At one point, the school also shared the site with the district’s original high school, which was razed in the 1950s.

The lure of a modern school was appealing, especially considering the fact that older facilities have many inadequate features that cannot support modern teaching methodologies, notes architect Linda L. Clark-Reel, project manager of Southern A&E LLC, Austell, GA. “There is much economic allure to condemn, demolish, and build a new campus,” she says. “It’s easy to justify. Architecturally speaking, many historic facilities are real gems that can never be replaced. Economically, it is impossible to construct a new building with the same qualities and features of an existing historic structure.”

The district had built two new elementary schools on land in other parts of the district around the same time that it was deciding whether to raze or renovate Hartwell Elementary School. Those making the decisions realized that with some creative funding - including monies from the state, as well as funding raised through local sales taxes - the main school building and gymnasium could be saved and updated.

Southern A&E’s restoration plan for the school won over the school board and administrators, as well as the community at large. The design respected the integrity of the two historic buildings, removed two architecturally unremarkable additions built in the 1960s and 1970s, and added 24 new classrooms that repeated aspects of the old architecture in an updated manner, among other improvements. “The campus had evolved into a mismatch of competing structures with no single architectural style or unifying theme,” Clark-Reel says.

Restoration on the campus began in 2003 and was completed in Spring 2004. The historic structures remained with very little alteration. Exterior restoration included cleaning and repointing the brick and stone and any necessary roof, fascia, and gutter repair. Clark was particularly adamant about maintaining the historical integrity of the gymnasium because it had personal significance to her: Her father helped design and build it.

Inside the renovated facilities, crews ripped out dated radiators and upgraded to modern HVAC systems, running ductwork through a service stairwell and the ceilings through the rafters in the classrooms. Restrooms and other areas were updated to meet modern ADA requirements. Crews also updated all alarm systems and electrical service.

The newest classroom-wing addition, built in 1974, remained. Where the two other wings were demolished, architects “shoehorned” in the new, nearly 29,000-square-foot classroom wing. A formerly open exterior walkway was also enclosed to create a new corridor between the old and new constructions.

The new addition’s design incorporates quoins, water tables, arches, arched windows, and circular vents similar to those on the historic buildings. “While not exact replicas of the existing structures, these architectural features are a nod to the character and beauty of the original structures,” Clark-Reel says. “The intention was to mimic the old while incorporating modern techniques and materials - altering the historic fabric as little as possible in the process.”

While the school remains historic, it decidedly offers students a modern education. Technology was upgraded and added throughout. All classrooms have Internet-linked computers on the teachers’ desks for students to use during class time. The school now also boasts a fully equipped computer lab for student use. “The board has been generous in allowing me to have some of the things on my wish list,” Clark explains. “One was to have technology-instructional teachers in all of our schools, so this school is wired. We were able to do that. All of our elementary schools are wired as they should be.”

The biggest challenge wasn’t adding technology to a 70-year-old building, Clark-Reel says. Rather, it stemmed from the project’s many elevation changes. The site slopes nearly 9 feet from front to back and also from left to right, making ADA compliance a bit tricky.

Clark-Reel says the hardest tests came in trying to connect the existing structures with the new enclosed walkways, which meet the maximum slope allowance; specifically, how to allow compliant door-opening widths and landings and align the new wing ramps and classroom spaces to prevent stairs at exterior classroom entrances. The project has 18 ramps inside and outside the buildings - all at accurate determination and placement.

The finished product houses 485 students, 60 staff and teachers, and 40 classrooms, as well as offices, other learning spaces, and public areas.

While the cost to build the two other new elementary schools tallied $15.5 million, Southern A&E completed renovations, additions, and upgrades to the Hartwell Elementary school for approximately $4.8 million, according to Clark-Reel. She notes that the modernized campus is comparable in space, size, equipment, materials, and personnel to the new buildings, and also did not require the purchase of a new building site, which saved an additional $1 million.

But value goes beyond dollars alone. “We’re proud of this building and the fact that we have had the community support to do this and to really preserve a part of our history,” Clark-Reel says. “That’s not always possible. It isn't always easy to sell the community.”

Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

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