It's been 18 months since Ida B. Wells High School said goodbye to its students and closed its doors for a massive, much-needed renovation. In a lightning-fast turnaround (at least by San Francisco construction standards), it's now complete, and will welcome returning students, who have been at John O'Connell High School during the renovation, to its halls next month.
Built in 1911, the three-story school is the longest continuously operating school in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Principal Catherine Pringle told us that it currently operates as a continuation school for students who were not succeeding in traditional public school formats. Students have to be referred to attend Ida B. Wells, which offers smaller classes, a heightened level of attention and an accelerated academic program, with the opportunity to earn a semester's worth of credits in just one quarter.
But the school's physical infrastructure was failing: the old windows were nailed shut, and the hallways were dark. As one of the last schools to be allocated renovation funding from 2011's Proposition A bond measure, it's been one of the toughest projects to tackle. Lemanski & Rockwell, an experienced team of school architects, were assigned to the Ida B. Wells project after their work renovating the Civic Center Secondary School in the Western Addition.
Ida B. Wells' makeover was less renovation and more complete rebuild, said architect Jean Lemanski. "We essentially built a new school, and attached the original masonry to it."
The entirety of the interior has been reconstructed, with a new layout, new electricity, new plumbing and new walls. "There was a lot of unused space before," Pringle told us, but that's no longer the case today.
The three-story school admitted around 170 students in the past, but now has the capacity for more than 200, a number that Pringle hopes to reach. On the lower level, a multi-use cafeteria and performance stage has been rebuilt, and thanks to funding from the American Conservatory Theater, it will eventually receive a new sound system and stage curtains.
The ground floor also boasts a large professional-grade kitchen for the culinary arts program (called Heat of the Kitchen), a fitness center for PE and after-school activities, and a comprehensive Wellness Center, home to both a school nurse and the many types of counselors that Ida B. Wells students may need.
On the second and third floors, traditional classrooms have been built—but they differ from the fluorescent-lit schoolrooms of yesteryear. Instead, soft LED lights cover the high ceilings, and huge windows offer breathtaking views of the city.
Some rooms have received modern furniture upgrades, to create what Pringle calls a "college student union" feel. High-speed wireless internet modems are available in every classroom and hallway.
Although the interior of the school is brand-new, Lemanski & Rockwell preserved several elements that they felt were unique, and that added aesthetic value to the space. On the third floor, a skylight over the hallway brightens up the space—and an unusual glass floor lets light leak through to the second story.
"There were wonderful features we could never replicate in a modern building," Lemanski told us. "It was obvious that we should save what we could." This attention to detail also applied to the rebuilding of the windows. "We tried to respond to the original design," Rockwell said," to pick up the lines of the facade's ornament."
The architects also made updates to the building's facade, which was in serious disrepair. "The cornice was in very poor condition, and was breaking and falling off," Lemanski said. "A prior repair was proved to be more damaging than helpful. Buildings naturally move and sway with the wind, and the renovations didn't. We replaced the repairs with lighter-weight cornice, that matched the original designs."
The last steps to completing the renovation involve the surrounding plots of bare dirt and the culinary arts program's overgrown garden, which all need a facelift. But school chefs Craven and Debbie will put the students to work, and there may be room for neighborhood volunteers to help clean up and plant the spaces down the line.
Ida B. Wells will reopen its doors to students on August 15th. If you're interested in taking a look at the renovations, stay tuned for September, when the school will host a community open house.
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