By Beth Herman
It’s regarded the same way inhabitants of a European village might revere their cathedral, according to Principal Chuck Swartz of Reader & Swartz Architects, P.C.
Located on a 40-acre Olmsted Brothers-created site, inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia and emblematic of history’s Progressive Education Movement (PEM) in its open form and structure, iconic John Handley High School had been eroded by time and convention. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1998, the Winchester, Virginia school’s legacy was also tied up in an anomalous decision by Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art: For the duration of WWII, $1 million dollars’ worth of paintings had been secretly squired to a vault in the school’s basement— its Whistlers, Rembrandts and Degas’ under 24-hour armed guard to shield them from the possibility of a District attack. Opened in 1923 and renovated in the ‘70s, Handley’s programmatic mission, mechanical and electrical systems, fire safety resources and handicapped accessibility were increasingly marked by obsolescence and changing education models. In the case of a school-wide communications system, there was none.
With VMDO Architects as architect of record, Reader & Swartz Architects, P.C. collaborated in a seven-year, three-phase expansion, renovation and restoration of the original 122,000 s.f. structure (310,000 s.f. with later additions) that would, among other things, increase the number of classrooms for approximately 1,190 students. Aspects of the original Walter McCornack design—having undergone late 1970s incursions such as dropped ceilings (that impeded sunlight) and “hermetically sealed” windows that flailed at the energy conservation practices of the day—would be restored and/or reimagined into multi-functioning, aesthetically pleasing spaces. And, working with standards set forth by the Secretary of the Interior, essential tax credits available in restoring landmark buildings would accrue. “The building was literally a sacred cow,” Swartz said.
Sounds like school spirit
Affirming the community’s feverish support for the school, which translated into a $5 million to $8 million dollar local fundraising effort spearheaded by Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr. to help defray some of its $63.9 million cost, Swartz, a Handley alumnus himself, said the redesign task was monumental on so many levels.
“We wanted to be true to Winchester, true to the historical vision of the school, true to the philosophy and spirit of the school,” he explained. But the architects also wanted to integrate 21st Century educational ideals into the redesign. “We wanted to keep Handley’s soul but make it better than it was,” Swartz added, explaining their intention to make each space more than just a room, a passageway or a wall, but rather a teaching tool in itself—actually in the original style of the PEM.
According to VMDO Architects Principal Bob Moje, “Handley High School was a restoration but it wasn’t just putting it back the way it was. We rethought the whole educational process from top to bottom, reorganized where everything was in the school, and saw what the building’s existing assets were—what we could use and what we could reinterpret.”
Believing the school may be the only public high school of its kind to maintain extensive archives, of which the architects readily availed themselves, Swartz drew a parallel between early Handley/PEM design principles where students had access to natural light and the outdoors itself, and today’s education mandates for the same. Though a massive “nature study court” created in the original plans, conceived of as a greenhouse for observational purposes, was never realized in that its glass roof for some reason was never applied, the 1970s saw the application of a solid roof, but the empty court assumed no purpose, Swartz said. During the current renovation, the team exchanged the conventional roof not for glass but fiberglass, allowing light into the space below and turning it into a second cafeteria/cafe for socializing and meal options. Located just outside the school theatre (the largest in the city, according to Swartz), the space can also be utilized for special events like proms or après-theatre events. Busts of Founding Fathers and other historical elements lend a kind of dignity and education value to it.
In the next phase, a two-story trussed space—used as a gym in its original design—had received another floor during the ‘70s and had become levels of windowless classrooms. In the current renovation, part of the second floor was removed and a staircase was added to knit both levels together (access was previously gained through fire stairs), with the result a two-story gym and two-story state-of-the-art media center, where historical trusses were exposed and retained.
Of Picassos and partnerships
Originally created as a school for grades k-12, an arcade at one end of the building was designed to gild a kindergarten where children could go outdoors and play. For more than 80 years, it was never used in that or any way whatsoever, so the team closed off adjacent doors and created a brand new entrance into the school by using the entire arcade as a front portico.
The school’s main hallway had a previous, informal moniker where it was known simply as the wooden hallway. In the original Post WWI drawings, it was called the Gallery of Art and History: its intent to be filled with art or objects to provide students with a learning opportunity. Presently known as the James R. Wilkins Gallery (named for its current benefactor), or also as the school’s very own Corcoran Gallery, the space is now an arena—or teaching tool— of high quality art reproduced from Corcoran negatives, courtesy of a donor-sponsored partnership between Reader & Swartz, Water Street Design (graphics) and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “Before we worked on it, it had some paintings of principals and random displays, but now it’s been elevated to gallery status,” Swartz said.
On the exterior, in addition to reconfiguring the arcade into the new main entrance, a balustrade across the top was rotting and had to be repaired and restored; cupolas and roofs needed repair and bricks repointing. Waterproofing was a huge component in the redesign, as among other things an esplanade had experienced structural problems over the years and was leaking substantially.
In the back of the building, a second floor was inserted and braced with steel, as the school had been built prior to lateral force requirements. “On the one hand you’re fixing caulk and rotten wood on windows and balustrades, and a leaky esplanade, but on the other you’re adding like a city block of modern classrooms that sit behind a parapet, making sure they aren’t seen from public areas so they are really quiet (and don’t intrude on the building’s historical integrity),” Swartz said. “It’s basically a new school inside an historic shell with as much history retained as possible.” The building was also reorganized to feature math and science classrooms on one side, with art and literature on the other, much like the left brain/right brain landscape of the human brain. Phase III of the redesign addressed the 1962 additions in the back, which were repaired and updated, though historic elements were not at issue.
“Architects make as many mistakes by doing too much as in not doing enough,” VMDO’s Moje said, “and this is a very interesting project in that regard. In some ways, it may be our best work but you cannot see a lot of it. It’s an amazing piece of sleight of hand to expand the school, but the front appearance has not changed at all,” he said, referencing the second floor that was stepped back considerably.
Citing choreography concerns in restoring and renovating a project of this magnitude, Swartz said the high school had to remain operational during construction, which took four years. “You had to meet all the education standards, help get kids into college—all those things while you’re tearing a building apart and putting it back together,” he said, adding the job was so extensive the first $30 million was just to tear things out and put in new systems—within the same walls.
“I went there, my mother went there and later worked there, my brother currently teaches there and my daughter goes there,” Swartz said of a project that resonated as much for him personally as it did professionally. “Clearly John Handley High School is an amazing edifice in this town.”
Said Moje, whose firm has designed many hundreds of educational environments in the past 35 years, “Probably the vast majority of articles you read in the news media are negative about public education. The fundraising efforts of the high school and its graduates show there is still an awful lot of good about it, and this building is representative in a lot of ways.”