The Hudson School
To address the challenges of designing a state-of-the-art school within a building that was mandated by the community to be “substantially similar” in appearance and footprint to an earlier Second Empire school on the site, we looked to the past, the present, and the future.
From the past, we learned how to satisfy contemporary educational needs on an extremely tight site. For example, from the previous school we learned how its intimate, residential scale fostered the personalized learning and individual attention that characterizes this small school serving 190 urban middle and high school students. In response, the new school building is more like a house than an institution.
Organized around a central hall and space saving scissor stairs, the building provides community—oriented spaces (a “black-box” music/drama room and multi-purpose room with pantry) on the ground floor; a variety of classrooms, resource areas/breakout spaces and teacher workrooms on the second and third floors; and school—oriented special spaces on the fourth floor including science and art rooms. “Alcoves for learning” throughout - including small studies, a computer hub, shared teacher workspace and a small library - accommodate a variety of informal meetings, seminars and conferences. Each learning space supports “activity pockets” for groups of two to five learners with all the surfaces, display, storage, and resources necessary.
From other historic urban schools on very limited sites, we learned how to provide space for physical education and recreation on top of the building. By taking advantage of the volume of the mansard roof, we inserted an enclosed, double-height multi-purpose/recreation space that did not exist in the original building. As well, inspired by the expansive windows in the original building, large, operable windows provide plentiful natural light to every space within the new building, including the corridors.
From the present, all the stakeholders learned about the value of building understanding and consensus to meet both neighborhood and institutional objectives. Unexpectedly, the original building on the site — a late 19th century school — was found to be structurally compromised and was quickly demolished. This surprised and alienated the adjacent neighborhood who considered the building to be a community center and a local landmark. The design process brought the school and the community together to create a new building that resonated with this lost heritage, reinstating the school as an important community landmark and resource, while providing flexible and state-of-the-art learning environments inside of the building for the students and staff.
With the building open less than a year, the community has already made itself at home using the black-box theater and the building’s other facilities for local civic theatre productions, Yoga classes, dance performances and educational tutoring services.
The final lesson learned is that technology will continue to quickly evolve for the foreseeable future. In addition to educational television and desktop computer stations, the building is outfitted to enable distance learning between the school’s civic and business partners worldwide and, through pathways installed in advance of a wireless data network, the building is ready for ubiquitous computing.
When I was first invited to walk through the building on the corner of a residential neighborhood, I was told that 500 German immigrant children once inhabited it. Even the original mudrooms and the coal bins, the hand-hewn timbers and the second floor balcony, suggested what life in this school might have been like in 1865. Today, the original structure is no longer standing–we were forced to tear it down due to serious structural problems caused by neglect and age– but on the very same site stands a replica of the former school, including an impressive double circular exterior staircase. For generations, graduating seniors stood for their photos, and today the Class of 2003 stood proudly in their caps and gowns.
Inside, of course, the space, reflects current educational trends and building codes: an 80-seat “black box” theatre for recitals and dramatic productions; an all-purpose room with doors to a warming kitchen, a storeroom and the outside so that children can enjoy lunch and exit easily to the neighborhood park down the block. The room doubles as a high school lounge. Off to one side is the Athletic Director’s office with a window for practical surveillance and indirect lighting and a Dutch door. The spacious corridor is light and airy, with tempered glass double doors at each end, allowing light to flood the lobby. An added feature is a pair of interior fire doors that not only meet modern building code regulations, but also allow our thespians their own “back stage” for performances.
There are twelve airy classrooms, including a science room, art room, computer room and seminar/board room and two intimate studies. These rooms accommodate between 18-24 students. Our school offers more than 150 different courses to a population of 190 middle school and high school students, so it was very important to us that we have spaces of varying capacities. In our judgment, students in an AP language class or honors seminar would be better served in a more intimate space, such as the study or seminar room (The latter includes a small, handmade table and ten chairs designed for the space by a local cabinet maker.) No class exceeds 24, so we planned accordingly.
We also wanted to have an open space for physical education classes but were required by our local zoning and planning boards to design the building with a Mansard roofline so as to replicate the original structure we were forced to tear down. Even the footprint of the earlier school had to be maintained, except for a small addition to the north to accommodate the elevator and restrooms. Our architect designed a half-court area on the top floor with 16′ ceilings , large enough for practicing lay-ups and for middle school games, dance classes and gymnastics.
Our art room, located on the top floor, also has high ceilings and lots of light, which we can regulate, of course, with shades.
Another part of our educational philosophy reflected in the layout of the building is the opportunity for teachers in both the middle school and high school divisions to work together. Hence, we located two small teachers’ rooms, with Xerox machines, sinks and refrigerators, on the second and third floors. Teachers from all grades meet on their breaks and share ideas or exchange advice, which often leads to cooperative teaching ventures or collaborative projects.
The school feels more like a home than an institution. It has already become a community center fused by outside groups such as a local civic theatre company, a Yoga teacher, a Brazilian dance troupe, and educational tutoring services. Our students tend to hang out even after dismissal, mixed ages with common interests, to play some chess or jam on their instruments, for example.
We have selected a color scheme that is soft and inviting blue moiré walls and federal blue trim, for example. Our handrail, striking cobalt blue-violet, picks up the tone of the theatre walls and makes a statement: We’re serious but we know how to be silly!