Austin Community Colleges ushers a beloved building into the next century.
Client Austin Community College District
Architect Overland Partners
Architect of Record Studio8 Architects
Historic Preservation Architects Architexas; Hutson Gallagher
Contractor Bartlett Cocke
MEP Engineer Shah Smith & Associates
Structural Engineer Leap!Structures
Civil Engineer Dunaway
Building Envelope Consultant Acton Partners
IT/AV & Security Combs Consulting Group
Landscape Architect dwg
When construction crews began the task of tearing the interiors of a 1916 school building down to the foundation, they uncovered decades of details left behind by its former students and faculty. Tucked away unceremoniously in the past, a 1950s report card, fast food trash from the ’70s, and a chalkboard complete with teacher’s notes tell the story of a century of education in the heart of Austin.
In 1916, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Austin public schools added 50 percent to their capacity; they could now accommodate “about 2,500 pupils” in schools of “modern type and excellent construction.” Austin was booming at the time, with a whopping 818 new students enrolling in local schools in 1915. The cornerstone of this new wave of educational construction was the John T. Allan Junior High School at 1212 Rio Grande Street. Designed by local architect Dennis R. Walsh, it could accommodate 1,200 students and was funded by half of a $250,000 bond package issued in 1915. Its namesake, John T. Allan, was an early developer of manual-training curricula in the South, which would be offered at the new school.
When it opened, the Statesman heralded the building as “one of the best in the country,” taking great pains to describe its modern features in such detail that it included the dimensions of its longest corridor and library in feet. The three-story, T-shaped building had 36 classrooms; wings dedicated to woodworking, domestic economy, and sewing; and a fireproof concrete frame with fire exits. Additionally, functional windows offered each student light and air; bathrooms were sanitary; and a mechanical heating system also warmed Pease Elementary to the south.
With a Corinthian colonnade, golden hued Elgin-Butler brick, and an auditorium that could “seat more people than any church in the city,” the building was a focus of civic pride. Austin continued to grow, and school leaders financed an addition to the building that filled in the wings of the T-shaped footprint, creating a rectangular floorplan with two central courtyards that were left open-air for ventilation. Thanks to its increased capacity, 1212 Rio Grande became Austin High School in 1925. For the next 50 years, Austin High turned out future mayors, congressmen, and civic leaders under the gaze of Austin’s last-constructed moontower at 12th and Rio Grande.
Architect Emily Little, FAIA, who attended Austin High from 1967 to 1969, remarks, “There was a nobility to that building,” contrasting it with the low-slung midcentury construction of O’Henry Middle School, which she had attended in the years before. “There was so much space — even though it was kind of crowded with students, then,” she says. “There was more vertical space above our heads than below. The volumes of the rooms were so inspiring, with lots of windows, so there was a real uplift.”
Since 1975, Austin Community College (ACC) has called the neoclassical building home. While still educating thousands of students a year, 1212 Rio Grande began to figuratively sag under the weight of its age. The exterior brick was tarnished, and the two inner courtyards sucked up heat, ratcheting up energy usage. Incremental renovations, especially the installation of HVAC systems, had progressively lowered ceiling levels, giving occupants a feeling of learning in a Byzantine basement.
Luckily for this century-old building, its owner, ACC, heads an ambitious architectural program and was willing to dedicate funds from its 2014 bond package to rehabilitate it. The fact that ACC was in a position to pursue such a complicated adaptive reuse project, and that the building — then 98 years old — still held architectural and educational value, is an incredible consonance.
Led by Overland Partners and Studio8 Architects, the design team intended to guarantee 1212 Rio Grande yet another century of existence. The team was confronted with the complicated task of preserving the historic building, integrating contemporary sustainability measures, and supporting ACC’s diverse educational offerings — all within a modest $49 million budget.
One of the largest community college systems in the country, ACC has 11 campuses that serve 70,000 students. As ACC’s only downtown campus, Rio Grande offers government, chemistry, and other core classes, some of which are offered elsewhere; students can choose to take classes where it is most convenient to take them. ACC Rio Grande is also home to several specialized programs, including the PACE program, where students can complete two years of coursework at ACC before transitioning into a bachelor’s program at the nearby University of Texas at Austin.
Overland Principal Adam Bush, AIA, notes that, due to the school’s urban location, designers set out to deliver a “21st-century campus in a box.” Because ACC doesn’t occupy a traditional campus, students need to be able to access services like the library or student affairs at any building they take classes in. Following the building’s original orientation before years of gunky renovations, the design team offered a highly legible and navigable scheme they describe as a “box within a box” to help emphasize these uses.
Designers placed a column of collaborative spaces, including the library and the college’s ACCelerator Learning Lab, in the core of the building. This vertical core is marked with modern glass and metal panels that stand in contrast to the finished drywall throughout the rest of the project. The panels are offset with the building’s original concrete supports, which were discovered and retained in the renovation.
The main entrance is now somewhat tucked away at a dark ground-level doorway, mystifyingly two floors below the building’s historic colonnaded entryway. Nonetheless, once inside, users approach a gleaming purple student services office that is part of a surprisingly well-lit ground floor. Designers replaced the basement classrooms of the prior incarnation of the building with a new “level zero,” which also increased the number of ADA-accessible entrances in the facility from one to four.
Flanking the central core of the building are two interior lightwells that span three floors. Previously open-air courtyards, they reduced energy efficiency for the rest of the building and were uninhabitable most of the year due to heat or cold. The architects enclosed the spaces with an ETFE roof, a system of clear polymer plastic air-filled pillows that cover the courtyards without introducing the need for additional supporting structure. With re-arrangeable furniture, both lightwells act as informal gathering areas for students or can host larger events for ACC.
The designers took ample advantage of this interior light source and also replaced all the windows in the project with custom energy-efficient aluminum-clad wood windows that matched their original counterparts. The architects also installed a chilled beam system, which takes up less space than traditional HVAC, allowing ceilings to be raised and recessed along large windows to bring light in (previously, the ceiling had cut off portions of the stately windows).
On each floor, a rectangular circulation path leads visitors to classrooms, faculty offices, labs, and administrative spaces that border the exterior of the building, the “bigger box” framing the center core. The new Rio Grande campus also includes dedicated space for ACC’s partnership with Gallaudet University, a private university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Previously, the school’s courses offered in ASL were located at disparate ACC locations; the new wing centralizes these and offers gathering spaces specifically for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Similarly, the new campus also houses a software development space for Army Futures Command.
When I visited, I stood in one of the enclosed courtyards under the bubble-wrapped ceiling listening to the blustery din of the HVAC. Despite the gorgeously renovated neoclassical facade, I didn’t feel tethered to the building’s past or to its future. My perception of the project was simply that the building’s shabby old innards had been scooped out and in their place now were sleek yet sensible contemporary interiors.
To me, the architectural dialogue between what remained and what was added seemed to be nonexistent. But the more I dug into the building’s history, the more I began to hear the conversation between past and present. A rapidly developing city commits public resources to train students for a quickly changing future. New ways of teaching are translated into brick, concrete, and glass. A historical school is adapted for today’s students, with hopes that it lasts into a world that its creators can’t yet see.
Penny Snyder is an arts communicator and public policy graduate student in Austin.