Meet John Greer. He is the vice president and principal architect of Arkansas-based Witsell Evans Rasco Architects/Planners. With an industry focus on preservation technology and over 17 years of specialized historic experience, Greer is by all accounts an adaptive reuse pro. Factor in a thick skin for battling naysayers and an unrivaled eye for detail, and suddenly you have an explanation for why Downtown Little Rock now has a whole new category of weekday commuters: K-12 students.
For many local residents and community leaders, the idea of a centrally-located charter school was unfathomable. "A first grader going to school in downtown?" But for Greer and his firm, the project represented an opportunity to not only breathe new life into the city’s core, but to also instill an alternative use culture among the area’s many historic property owners. With this mission in mind, they turned their sites on the vacant but still grand Gazette Building.
Designed by George Mann and built for the Arkansas Gazette by Peter Hotze in 1908, the Gazette Building was considered by many to be one of the South’s "state of the art" newspaper plants in its day. A shining example of the Beaux Arts Classicism style, the exterior terra cotta façade exhibits elements of classical ornamentation such as Ionic columns, swags, and anthemia found on many downtown buildings of the period. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The project began with the understanding that the federal rehabilitation tax credit would be used to offset rehabilitation of the areas of the building that were the most undisturbed by previous renovations, including the first floor public corridors, the three-story ornamental communicating staircase, and the exterior façade. The finishes of the upper floors had been less lucky in renovations over the years, and as a result had to be removed. However, classrooms on those floors were configured to make use of existing windows, and ornamental stair railings and hexagonal floor tiles were used to reinforce the distinctive character of the lobby. Other than mild cleaning of the original limestone and terra cotta, very little work was required on the building’s exterior.
"The floor plan lent itself to a very open arrangement of classrooms along the perimeter encircling a central lightwell," Greer said. "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. The subject a student to eight hours of intense learning without natural light is not an environment that is conducive to learning."
This fall, the doors of the new eStem Charter School (a short and clever acronym for education in science, technology, engineering and math) swung open for over 800 students, with many more competing for just a few remaining slots. The elementary school occupies the first floor, while the middle and high schools operate on the second and third floors, respectively. Currently, eStem only offers K-9, but will add a grade level each year until 2011.
"Someone described downtown as the hearth of the city, the living room of the city, where people come for work, where people come for entertainment," eStem Charter School Representative Joe Mittiga was quoted as saying in an article by Little Rock’s KLRT-TV that was published before the school’s grand opening. "So why not education? It adds life and vibrancy to a city."
From a planning perspective, renovating existing schools or re-using buildings for school use is a sustainable practice that promotes better air quality by decreasing vehicle miles traveled. This spring, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart School Siting Policies project to promote policy and practices that encourage community-centered schools such as the eStem Charter School.
Through incentives and grants, the Obama Administration and Congress should address the overdue maintenance needs and much-needed technology upgrades of our country’s older and historic schools. Such improvements extend the life of not only our country’s schools, but also of our local communities.