Historic Alameda High School

Project Description

One of California’s largest historic public school renovation projects, the rehabilitation and seismic retrofitting of Historic Alameda High School (HAHS) rebirthed an iconic civic and historical landmark while providing 21st century learning environments, technology and accessibility. The 100,000-square-foot HAHS is composed of two- and three-story neoclassical buildings originally designed by Bay Area architect Carl Werner. When the 1924 buildings no longer met California’s Field Act seismic standards, they were deemed unsafe for students. The school district and City used HAHS, without students, after 1978, but the buildings were shuttered after a 2012 report found they could collapse in a major earthquake.

The restoration of HAHS, while costly up front, was a clear choice of the community and school board due to long-term benefits of available space for educational offerings and student wellness services, the greater sustainable impact of restoration, and the desirable features of existing classroom space. The project required comprehensive research, the development of innovative installation and testing methodologies and an all-out collaboration between the district, project team, restoration experts, and the community.

The project successfully accomplished its main goals while finishing on schedule: Creation of highly flexible and modernized learning environments that accommodate differentiated teaching and learning in safe environments that celebrate the buildings’ historical significance.

Honoring the original grand design was of utmost importance to this project. The project team viewed this not as a hindrance but a simultaneous goal, along with the need to provide state-of-the-art learning environments and technology for current and future students and staff.

The team worked closely with the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society (AAPS), not only renovating and restoring 350 historic wood windows and 6,000 panes of glass but preserving original wooden sills and sashes. The exterior was repainted in the original colors, adding to the familiarity of the repaired columns, terrazzo stairs and bronze-and-copper detailing. AAPS recently recognized the project as its annual Preservation Award winner.

The original front lobby was completely restored and classrooms were renovated to meet current size requirements. Original classroom millwork and cabinetry were preserved; up-to-date technology, acoustic panels and furniture were added. Lathrop Construction even created its own millwork department to accommodate specific project needs. Third-floor-corridor skylights were restored to provide as much natural light as possible.

The restored classrooms and science labs offer a good balance of historic restoration and modern learning environments. Video technology complete with wired and wireless data, dimmable lighting, and lightweight moveable furniture complement the historic windows and traditional trim. The result is a highly flexible learning environment that accommodates differentiated teaching and learning in a rich, historical setting.

With its large teaching spaces, high ceilings, non-load-bearing shared classroom walls and accessible infrastructure in ceilings and attics, HAHS accommodates any future need to increase classroom sizes and the creation of smaller spaces. Its large window walls will allow future changes not to compromise daylight and ventilation. These features will be integral as the school navigates pandemic-era learning.

Design Challenge

As a nearly 100-year-old school with poor lateral resistance sited on liquefiable soils, earthquakes were the building's greatest threat making seismic upgrades the first priority of the restoration process. Ameliorating shallow underlying liquefiable soils required an unusual method of soil stabilization —drilling over 2,000 high-pressure grout injection holes under the existing floor. The architect, geotechnical engineer, contractor and the Division of State Architect collaborated to develop an installation and testing methodology that preserved the building while permanently stabilizing soils. This required removal of raised flooring and framing and the use of a small mobile drilling rig and cement grout hoses snaking through the buildings. Once completed, the flooring was replaced without any indication of the severity of the work on the historic restoration. Another major architectural and seismic challenge involved the three-story building’s structural columns. Many of the concrete columns were extremely weak – in some cases with under 700-psi concrete when 3,000-psi was needed. This required nimbly placing new steel columns, lifted through the three-story high roof, on new footings to be attached to the weak concrete columns. This, along with inserting one- and two-story steel-braced frames and concealing new floor-to-wall connections, provided a significant portion of the vertical and lateral strengthening. Unusual even for restoration projects, preservation of this historic school required comprehensive research, custom detailing and special construction techniques to save its fragile wood windows including a national search for replacement hardware, custom blades to recreate millwork, and retaining faux painting and bronze restoration specialists. This attention to detail throughout the aesthetic repairs, occurring in tandem with serious upgrades to the structural integrity of the buildings, was a hallmark challenge even for the experienced project team involved.

Physical Context

The project’s genesis was when the architects completed districtwide master planning, particularly focusing on the inadequacy and condition of the 1970s replacement Alameda High School, built when the original school was deemed unsafe to students. The abandoned HAHS was rundown and anathema to the City’s rich historical context. In addition, HAHS had a high potential to collapse during a seismic event, putting students and staff near the abandoned school at great risk. Thanks to the district’s and community’s wish to revive the old treasure, there was early support to restore the neoclassical buildings. With over 10,000 buildings built before 1930, the City of Alameda is committed to the preservation of its historic buildings and neighborhoods. Within a few blocks of the HAHS are some of the City’s most significant monuments, all on the National Register, including a 1914 post office, City Hall built in 1895, the 1931 Alameda Theater and the 1922 First Church of Christ Scientists, also designed by the early twentieth century architect Carl Werner. As one of the City’s remaining -- but not yet rehabilitated -- historic treasures, the community felt that the shuttered Historic Alameda High School was an eyesore and a fading beacon of the city’s history. Centrally located, the school was an untapped asset to the community both for its historical value and potential to provide much needed academic space. As a school on the National Register of Historic Places and the City’s Historic Monument list, the design focused on its sense of place in its historical context. Along with coordination with the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society, the Secretary’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties was part of the design and construction process. This led to applying “Preservation” standards to the buildings’ exteriors such as bronze work, plaster, reliefs and wood windows, meeting goals of preserving the “greatest amount of historic fabric”. This standard also applied to public spaces such as lobbies and open stairs. As a connection to the streetscape of Central Avenue, a major pedestrian and vehicular circulation route, a collection of unsightly and mostly wild shrubs and trees were replaced with simple understated plantings, emulating other historical buildings along this prominent avenue. Street facing benches are provided as a place of rest for informal student gathering and community walkers. Welcoming students back for the 2019-20 school year celebrated the many generations of students that will shape their future in a building that connects them to their community’s collective past. It was the great pride in its historic resources that brought about the restoration of this historic school, a former crown jewel of the community, to its original grandeur.