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The Wheeler School

Providence, Rhode Island
Ann Beha Architects

Ann Beha Architects creates a transparent link between the past and present with a contemporary glass student-union addition

By Linda C. Lentz

Located on a steep hill rising from the east bank of the Providence River, the College Hill neighborhood in Providence was the site of the first permanent colonial settlement in Rhode Island. Primarily residential, it currently constitutes one of the city’s most extensive enclaves of historic architecture, as well as being home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — all carefully monitored by the Providence Preservation Society. Yet the Wheeler School’s new two-story Nulman Lewis Student Center, a contemporary glass building that adjoins early-20th-century brick and 19th-century wood-frame structures on either side, has won the respect of both the school and local communities with nary a protest from traditionalists.

The Wheeler School
Photo © David Lamb Architectural Photography

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This warm welcome stems largely from a sensitive design that balances both the historic urban context and the demands of an independent coed day school easing into the 21st century.

Program

Founded in 1889 by educator and artist Mary Wheeler, her eponymous institution had grown over the years from its original 10 girls to a student body of more than 800 boys and girls, ranging from nursery school through grade 12. Its physical plant had also evolved from one building (still in use) into an assemblage of properties and eclectic structures from various eras that lacked cohesiveness and the sense of belonging to one campus. Additionally, says school business manager Gary Esposito, “Our enrollment was demanding more space. Our dining service was crowded, and the kids needed space to relax and socialize.” 

A call for master plans in 2003 generated several remedies, one of which would have built on precious outdoor space used for children’s activities. The school’s building committee ultimately selected a resourceful scheme developed by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects in 2006. This three-phase plan identified underutilized or seemingly unusable plots on the city-block-size main campus as potential new-build sites — integrating new structures with adjacent older ones that could be renovated in the process.

One of these targeted areas was a 30-foot-wide plot allocated to the school’s dumpsters, between the wood-frame Clark Alumni House (1887), where the administrative offices reside, and the brick Hope Building (1910), home to the student union, cafeteria, school shop, and middle school. According to Ann Beha principal in charge Tom Hotaling, it was a piece of prime real estate, narrow but buildable. So he and his team filled this gap with the Nulman Lewis Student Center, the first phase of their master plan, abutting the two older structures and forming a bridge between them. This simple, 10,000-square-foot intervention set the stage for a radically improved redistribution of space among the three very different buildings.

Solution

Rather than mimic the style of one of the structures they were linking to, the designers devised a modest, cast-in-place concrete construction that wouldn’t compete with or overwhelm either of them. They designed the new building’s ribbed-glass-and-aluminum curtain wall to be in proportion with the existing buildings’ fenestration. They also specified zinc to sheathe the junctures of the buildings so as to echo the school’s zinc-clad gym, which is across campus.

“The new building is tucked into a side street, which made its Modern style less objectionable to its tradition-bound neighbors and city authorities,” Hotaling explains. “The design also made sense to people.”

School head Dan Miller asked for an environmentally sustainable building, so Beha’s team shaded the student center by extending the curtain wall’s aluminum ribs 8 inches outward and 8 inches into the interior. The designers positioned panes of fritted glass to reduce heat gain and alternated them with transparent and back-painted opaque sections, balancing areas of visibility with ones for privacy.  Operable windows minimize the need for air-conditioning, as does an insulating green roof, which also reduces water run-off.  Finally, high-efficiency HVAC and daylighting systems curb energy usage.

Inside, the three buildings function as one. The Hope Building’s ground-floor cafeteria, enlarged by the relocation of the school shop to an upper floor, funnels through a newly created café and spills into the addition’s double-height glass atrium fitted with additional seating. An open stair leads to the lobby — the school’s new pick-up/drop-off point, and the entrance to the once-isolated offices — and up into the middle school. Renovated and new classrooms in the Hope Building and on the top floor of the addition address the school’s need for improved computer and science facilities.

Commentary

What at first glance appears to be a simple addition subtly transforms a school community. The Nulman Lewis Student Center serves as the Wheeler School’s gateway, greeting visitors with its updated signage and soft colorations that morph from green to blue to gray depending on the atmosphere and time of day. At dusk, the light it transmits illuminates the otherwise dark street, making it friendly and safe for children waiting to be picked up. Already a hub for students, faculty, and parents drawn to its contemporary vibe, comfortable gathering spots, and panoramic views, this small project is adapting to the school’s needs — not vice versa.

Gross square footage: 10,000 sq.ft. (new and renovated)

Total construction cost: $3.8 million

Completion Date: March 2009

Owner:
The Wheeler School

Architect:
Ann Beha Architects
33 Kingston Street
Boston, MA 02111
T 617.338.3000]
F 617.482.9097

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