Sometimes the biggest challenge in reusing a historic building is not adapting its irreplaceable features, but convincing those who will ultimately use the building that you're not crazy.
In addition to dealing with ductwork and tricky floor-to-floor heights, Little Rock-based architect John Greer also had to contend with a steady chorus of dissent from those who thought a K-12 charter school in an abandoned downtown newspaper plant simply couldn't be done.
In anticipation of his recent Faces in Preservation profile, we had a chance to chat with the reuse pro himself about his unique project and some of the challenges he encountered along the way.
PreservationNation: Why do you think the idea of a downtown K-12 school was so hard for people to get their heads around? What were some of the initial criticisms of the project?
In general, people don’t know how to handle change. The adjacent hotel was concerned about noise from the playground early in the morning when their patrons would be trying to sleep. The neighboring office buildings were happy with the quiet city street with the vacant building next door. They had plenty of parking at any given time of the day. They didn’t have to worry about traffic getting in and out of their buildings. There was no noise from screaming kids, bouncing balls on the playground, teachers with whistles...the list goes on. The reality of it is that, with the help of the city traffic engineers and the willingness of city leaders to embrace change, traffic flows quite well. Now, the first week was somewhat difficult, but once people got in a groove and got their pick-up and drop-off times coordinated, it worked quite well. And the hotel worked out an agreement with school administrators that the first recess would be delayed until after 9:30 a.m.
PreservationNation: Why was the Arkansas Gazette Building a perfect fit for the eStem Charter School?
The floor plan lent itself to a very open arrangement of classrooms along the perimeter encircling a central lightwell. There are so many exterior windows that we were able to provide abundant natural light in all but just a few classrooms. The introduction of natural light into these rooms has created an environment that is very conducive to the students. The charter school is the first school in our area to adopt an eight-hour school day. To subject a student to eight hours of intense learning without natural light is not an environment that is conducive to learning. Location is also key. It is within a three-block walk to the main public library. It is four blocks from a performing arts theater. And best of all, it is centrally located in the business district to allow working parents to drop off and pick up in close proximity to their work.
PreservationNation: Do you think the location of the school and the historic environment of the building enhance the educational experience in any way?
There is no doubt that the building and its location contribute to the educational experience. I've already mentioned the proximity to the library and performing arts theater. There are also numerous museums like the Old State House Museum, Historic Arkansas Museum, Clinton Presidential Library, Decorative Arts Museum and the Museum of Discovery within a quick walk of the school. The school has also already inspired a group of students to document and build a model of the school as part of a project with their class. This “pride of place” will go a long way in stimulating the students to go the extra mile with their education. If a student is proud to be in school, he or she will work that much harder to get more out of the experience.
PreservationNation: The eStem School has been open for about a semester now. What feedback have you and your firm received from students, parents or school staff?
Nothing but praise so far. The school has very strong parent participation. There are numerous volunteers that come to help at drop off and pick up times. Others come chaperone groups that walk to the library during the middle of the day. And others volunteer to come read to classes. If you gauge the satisfaction by the amount of parents participating in school activities, I think you would say that there is great satisfaction.
PreservationNation: Has the rehabilitation and reuse of the Arkansas Gazette Building been a catalyst for similar projects or initiatives in downtown Little Rock?
Not yet, but I can tell you that there are discussions of expanding the high school. With a very long waiting list at eStem, the administrators are now looking at the possibility of expanding the high school to allow growth of the elementary and middle schools. It is speculation now, but if the trend continues, there will be a space problem within the next few years. There are many buildings downtown that could lend themselves to a function such as this if only people will start to think outside the box. Sustainability comes in many forms and functions, but the reuse of historic buildings is by far the best way to start with green building. The use of tax credits was a huge bonus to the owners of the Gazette Building. The National Park Service was very willing to approve our application with little modifications. With team players like the local state historic preservation office and the National Park Service behind projects like this, you just can’t go wrong.
PreservationNation: In general, what do you think is the biggest challenge of adaptive reuse projects of historic structures?
Floor to floor heights are by far the biggest issues. We were fortunate with the Gazette Building because the first and third floors had 16-foot floor-to-floor to work with. The second floor was much tighter and resulted in dropping ceilings. No matter how much you squeeze ductwork, to meet ventilation requirements today you just have very little wiggle room to work with. You can change out all the MEP systems and upgrade, but you can’t raise the floor. Another critical issue is column placement. Classrooms don’t lend themselves to a 20 by 20 column grid. As a result, we have columns in classrooms. We had to be very creative with furniture placement and line of sight for students. Moving columns is akin to moving floors; it can’t be done easily or cheaply. The other thing is the code changes from business occupancy to educational. Luckily, we were able to sprinkle the whole building and the code officials allowed us to keep an ornamental stair open even though is an unprotected shaft. However, we had to do things to hand rails that we really had to struggle with so as not to damage historic materials.