April 18, 2014

Elyria
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Old and new meet: EHS designers combined historic building, state-of-the-art facility

ELYRIA — Built in 1894, the Washington Building of Elyria High School is a three-story Romanesque architecture-inspired classic that fell into disrepair over the years and needed more than just a touch up to bring it back to glory.

A construction worker puts up walls on an arch that is being made with some of the pieces from an old Elyria High building. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

A construction worker puts up walls on an arch that is being made with some of the pieces from an old Elyria High building. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

But that rejuvenation is well under way, and district officials hope it will become the crown jewel of the district’s $70 million construction project of a new Elyria High School.

Click here to view more photos.

It was not easy to design and build a new school around a 117-year-old building that residents fought to have listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, but it was important, said Elyria Superintendent Paul Rigda.

“Very early on in the project, before any of this was ever done, we had an idea that included tearing down all of the old buildings and building new,” Rigda said while standing in the school’s under-construction cafeteria. “But as soon as we presented it to the community, the response was overwhelming. There were a lot of people who said, ‘Not this building. It has too much history.’ ”

So Rigda gave the architect team an edict: Make the Washington Building both stand out and blend in.

Residents can check out the exterior details of the newly built portions of the school to see whether the concept worked.

The three tall, staggered windows in the peaks of the dormers pay homage to the three sets of three windows, one at the top of the Washington Building tower, and two at the top of the facade next to the tower.

The window arches in the new building’s dormers echo the arch at the entranceway to the Washington Building. And the rough-hewn limestone nearly matches the sandstone in the Washington Building.

“This is a special place,” said Zora Kovanovic of the Architectural Vision Group of Westlake, which specializes in designing school buildings and designed the new Elyria High. “That is why we wanted to keep a symbol of it around the entire campus. It shows in the colors, textures and finishes.”

Richard Nielson, the district’s business services director, jumped into the conversation and pointed out a block on the exterior of the gymnasium wall that is larger than the other bricks.
“Normally you don’t have cornerstones in new buildings, but we had one in the Washington Building so we have one here,” he said.

On the inside

An interior tour of the building will have to wait.

Earlier this month, school officials announced that the building’s construction timetable was behind schedule and portions of the building would not be ready for the Sept. 6 start of school.

The gym isn’t done. When school resumes, the cafeteria will be a dining-only facility because the kitchen isn’t completed. Gym classes will be postponed until at least the second quarter. And volleyball games once again will be played at the Administration Building on Griswold Road.

But a peek inside shows the second and third floors of the renovated Washington Building are nearly complete and set to open on time. The space will add 17 classrooms to the building. In addition, the first-floor rathskellar — a sort of student union for seniors that will be more of a meeting place than cafeteria — is set to open when classes resume. Located in the Washington Building, the space transforms what used to be useless catacombs into a college-like lounge for older students.

The dining hall is another example of the influence of the century-old building and the work that went into preserving it. The grand room, which will have a color scheme to match school colors, faces the exposed west wall of the Washington Building and the sandstone wall was built with hand-chiseled blocks to match the sandstone on the old building.

The masons who did that work also dismantled the archway of the old technical building piece-by-piece and reassembled it like a giant jigsaw puzzle to form one of the new main entrances, said Terry Tesmer, vice president of Regency Construction, the managing contracting company on the project.

The unified look is certainly not what former students saw with the old high school, whose hodgepodge of buildings was a sort of retrospective on the history of school architecture from 1894, when the Washington Building was finished, to 1955, when the auditorium and gymnasium were finished. All but the Washington Building have been demolished.

“It has been great working on this project,” Kovanovic said. “Where we had to put in new terrazzo flooring, we matched it to the existing terrazzo with the same colors and chips. We did about eight difference mixtures until we got the right recipe.”

Even the furniture that will grace the Washington Building is old meets new.

Students will not have slate tablets and inkwells reminiscent of 1894, said Rigda, but they will learn among some funky wood and metal retro pieces with a contemporary feel.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.