Architect: Cuningham Group
Architecture — Tim Dufault, AIA,
principal in charge; Margaret
Parsons, AIA, project manager;
Steve Albertson, AIA, project
architect; Darryl Pratte, AIA,
project designer; Janet Dray,
Consultants: Clark Engineering
Corporation (Structural); Data Core
Engineering (Technology); Hallberg Engineering (M&E)
Client: St. Paul Public Schools
Size: 86,000 square feet (new);
131,500 square feet (renovation)
Cost: $15.7 million
Masonry: McAvoy Brick Company
Roofing: GAF Materials
Aluminum windows: Traco
Glass: Oldcastle Glass
Security grilles: Cookson Company
Skylights: Wasco Products
Acoustical ceilings: USG Interiors
Plastic laminate: LG Surfaces Hi-Macs; Formica
Special Surfacing: 3Form
Resilient flooring: Mannington
CASE STUDY: Washington Technology Magnet Middle School, St. Paul, Minnesota, Cuningham Group
On the exterior, the 1924 brick-and-limestone building remains a landmark in St. Paul’s working-class North End neighborhood.
Photo: © Dana Wheelock
In generously glazed computer labs that overlook a soaring white atrium, science classes study robotics and observe a knee-replacement surgery via Skype while student-produced videos of school soccer games play on two large atrium screens. Meet the recently revitalized Washington Technology Magnet Middle School in the working-class North End neighborhood of St. Paul, a historic brick-and-limestone structure that surprises every first-time visitor upon entry. It’s no Googleplex, but it comes as close as a 1924 school can to approximating the open, technology-laden environments its students are likely to inhabit in college and beyond.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Both the school district and the generations of North End residents who attended Washington wanted to preserve the neighborhood landmark, but the tired building did little to support the school’s 21st-century curriculum. Furthermore, as a consequence of several additions dating back to the 1930s that addressed programmatic needs seemingly without concern for flow and ease of navigation, the school had become a rabbit warren of half-stories and narrow stairs. The only corridor connecting the east and west sides of the building, for example, was choked at one end by a 6-foot-wide stair.
Cuningham Group’s solution — surgically removing the center of the building (while school stayed in session!) and replacing it with a three-story, skylit technology gallery — dramatically clarifies and eases circulation and gives the school the cutting-edge identity it sought. Now teachers are able to supplement classroom lessons in all subjects with online learning in project labs — from the glassed-in rooms on the atrium to the computer-lined, multipurpose space on the gallery floor to the smaller lab in the new, 4,000-square-foot media center high above on the third level. The range of sizes offers flexibility that will serve (and preserve) the school for decades to come. “The need for smaller and larger spaces different from that of classrooms isn’t going to go away as programs change,” says Cuningham Group project manager Margaret Parsons, AIA. “It’s the use or the function that may change.”
Cuningham Group also renovated 131,500 square feet of existing space, most notably moving the administrative offices from the second floor to the east entrance and converting the old ones to small classrooms. Parents now have easy access to the offices, the auditorium (thanks to a new entrance carved out of an existing light well by the auditorium stage), and the basement-level cafeteria, and administrators can keep a watchful eye on all comings and goings. The west-entrance lobby, which handles traffic into the gym and the new presentation room, has added a new gate that closes off the rest of the school during evening events. And not all of the technology dollars were spent on the labs: Each full-size classroom boasts a SMART Board (interactive white board) and a ceiling-mounted digital projector — quite a sight in a classic 1920s schoolroom.
Students from across the school district flock to Washington’s after-school and summer classes, where they create the next chart-topper on GarageBand or solve a fictional homicide, CSI-style. But is it all just high-tech fun, or do these 12- and 13-year-olds have a sense of the advanced educational opportunities afforded them? Washington principal Mike McCollor offers this insight: “When we take kids over to the University of Minnesota and they see a scanning electron microscope, they say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s the next step in the progression,’ rather than, ‘They’ve got all this cool stuff at the university, or out in industry, and we’re going to go back and use chalkboards and read stuff out of a book.’ The students are now able to see that connection between where they are and what their future is.”
Christopher Hudson is the editor of Architecture Minnesota magazine.
A soaring, skylit technology gallery at the center of the building gives Washington Technology Magnet Middle School the cutting-edge identity it sought. (top); Cuningham Group’s design for the renovation dramatically improved circulation within the old building. (middle); The glazed, 4,000-square-foot media center on the third level overlooks the technology gallery (bottom).
Photos: © Dana Wheelock