Nathan Bishop Middle School, Providence, RI

Date posted: April 24, 2013


By 2006, the Nathan Bishop Middle School, a historically significant Georgian Revival style building constructed in 1928, had been closed for one year due to its poor physical condition. The following year, the school was on the top of Providence Preservation Society's "Most Endangered Properties" list.


Although it was originally designed to meet many of the current sustainable tenants of today, the building was slated for demolition in 2006.  A consultant’s feasibility study concluded renovation of the existing facility ($40.3 million) was more expensive than demolishing the current school and constructing a new facility ($38.3 million). 

However, the opposite was found true when sustainable principles were considered.  The demolition would have led to considerable construction waste and place a strain on limited landfill capacity. Even if the capital costs were comparable, the ecological footprint of new construction is considerably higher than renovation.

The existing building’s contribution to the social urban fabric was also discounted in the original analysis. This urban context insensitivity was revealed by community opposition to the building’s demolition.

Moreover, the first analysis failed to include the opportunities within the building to provide a 21st century educational program and thus over inflated the true cost of renovation.

By the numbers

Dates of Original Construction: 1928
Dates of Renovation: 2009
Total Cost of Renovation:   $26 million
Original Size: 131,700 square foot original building
Renovation: 133,150 square foot renovation
Enrollment:600 students
Architect: Ai3 Architects, Wayland, Massachusetts


A number of factors contributed to the decision in reuse the school.
First, the demolition was opposed by parents (East Side Public Education Coalition) and the Providence Preservation Society. 

Second, the state’s criteria funding criteria a) acknowledges the importance of historic architecture and b) involves a review by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.

Third, the city needed a 21st century facility to draw back students who had fled to private schools.

As a result of all of these considerations, Superintendent Evans invited stakeholders to help fashion a new middle school reusing the existing school and asked for a reevaluation of the school facility.

The architects saw potential in the facility’s generous floor-to-ceiling heights as well as numerous vertical shafts for including cost effective mechanical systems.  The structural system remained robust and redundant setting the stage for a facility whose life could be extended another 50 plus years.

The school’s extensive fenestration provided lots of natural light (note: “daylighting” is cited by the U.S. Department of Energy as being a way schools can be more energy-efficient) while the existing auditorium could be renovated into a fantastic performance space.

The square footage of the classrooms was in line with 21st century standards and did not need to be changed. Moreover, the actual square footage of the school (144,000) was less than estimated by the education consultants (151,898) and therefore did not represent excess space.

After significant investigation and design analysis, Ai3 presented options for converting and renovating this historic building, and the City committed to restoring the historic Nathan Bishop Middle School into a modern 21st Century middle school.

Sustainable design strategies, along with other modern amenities, were integrated into the design while simultaneously respecting the existing building's character and turn-of-the-century detailing. Ultimately the historic renovation project came in at $26 million -- less than original estimates and less than what it would have cost to construct a new school on the same site. 

Today, the Nathan Bishop Middle School also educates the students on the practical impact of Green Design through the incorporation of interactive learning kiosks, informational kiosks, and integrated learning environments that have direct applications in the science, chemistry, and physics educational curriculum. The renovated school now offers Advance Placement courses, team-teaching and student advisories—all viewed to be important components of a successful middle school.

In 2009, the Nathan Bishop Middle School opened as a High-Performance Historic "Green" School Building. On opening day the school was flooded with private school converts amazed at the newly created educational environment and its hand-picked faculty, administration, and staff.

As the first renovated historic school to be “certified” a high performance green school using the criteria Northeast Collaborative for High Performance Schools (NE CHPS) criteria in Rhode Island, it has won numerous accolades. In October 2009 it received the prestigious “Rhody Award for Historic Preservation” from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Key takeaways

  • Re-use is a viable option for many historic schools because they were originally designed to many of the current sustainable tenants of today (e.g., “daylighting” through many windows, etc.)
  • State guidelines that recognize value of historic architecture and walkable neighborhood sites are critical to retaining historic schools.
  • An historic building can be converted into a modern, green, 21st Century middle school that satisfies educators, historians, community members, and civic leaders.


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