A castle reveals its secrets

September 3, 2006 

Steel bracing helped keep Stadium High School standing during the two-year renovation project. Most of the interior was removed and rebuilt. Workers uncovered several oddities in the process, including a sub-basement of several rooms hidden behind concrete.


Anyone who’s ever remodeled a house knows about finding the unexpected.

Sometimes fun, sometimes headache-inducing, often costly, the surprises kept coming during the renovation of Stadium High School in Tacoma. Among them:

 • The crumbling state of the rainwater drain pipes built inside the walls and under the ground, a condition that didn’t appear during preliminary testing.

 • An extra underground oil tank that had contaminated a deep swath of soil.

 • A tiny staircase plastered behind a wall in the rear of the auditorium stage.

 • A sub-basement of several rooms, hidden behind concrete, on the south side of the building, requiring extension of the new concrete walls in those sections.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that modernizing the “Brown Castle” proved to be as interesting and complex as the building’s architecture is unique. The unforeseen challenges and an unprecedented rise in building material costs helped increase the project’s initial $91 million estimate by almost 19 percent.


Workers faced a large mission: Modernize the century-old building to meet contemporary safety and instructional needs while restoring its historic character. The task required removing and rebuilding most of the interior, including all the mechanical systems.

The building is huge – 196,642 square feet, with four floors, three basements and four attic levels. But the campus is squeezed onto a 12.07-acre site – a mere postage stamp compared to the 50-acre Mount Tahoma High School campus in South Tacoma. A steep hillside on the school’s bay side further complicates access.

The century-old castle had seen numerous remodels, making it tough to know exactly what lay behind, beneath and above the stone walls until construction began.

Figuring out how to seismically reinforce the chimney on the castle’s bay side was one of the project’s biggest dilemmas.

To get the first glimpse of the structure, a worker in a basket was lowered by crane to the 10-foot-wide chimney opening, recalled Jim Dugan, project manager with Krei Architecture.

The flue turned out to be corroded and contaminated with toxic chemicals. The renovation job, including construction of a chimney inside the chimney, cost about $500,000.

“We went through I don’t know how many designs to get the buy-off from an engineer,” said Turner Construction’s Stan Fillips, who oversaw the Stadium project for the district.


Incorporating a sense of history into a 21st-century school resulted from a partnership of architects, School District officials, builders, craftsmen and civic oversight.

For example, the blond wood window seats and the office countertops in the new building were reclaimed from century-old structural beams that workers removed during the renovation.

“It’s there to take a piece of the history of the building and put it out into view and enjoy it,” said Ben Finney, senior project manager for general contractor Skanska USA Building.

But knowing what to restore wasn’t obvious, since countless architectural details had been covered up or lost in previous renovations. Project architects researched the campus history and looked to blueprints for clues to the original castle appearance.

Specialists and contractors analyzed the condition of the castle’s brick and masonry exterior, its copper spires and innumerable other features to determine what needed restoration.

Since the campus is on the city’s historic register, the district had to seek approval from the city Landmarks Preservation Commission for the exterior design of the new performing arts center and parking garage, and to make changes to the castle exterior.

The district voluntarily appointed a “historic advisory committee” made up of historic-preservation architects and a historian. The committee worked with the project architects suggesting ways to retain or reinstate historic characteristics.

Refurbishing the unusual architectural elements of the castle posed an assortment of technical challenges.

Working the equivalent of 15 stories above ground at times, roofers wore safety harnesses tied off to the castle’s flat portion of the roof. The job entailed nailing composition shingles to the castle’s cone-shaped turrets along with the gables and steeply sloped roof.

And how to remove those copper spires, called finials, topping the turrets and gables?

“One of our guys came up with an innovative method to take them off,” said Bob Alton, vice president of Cobra Roofing Services Inc. in Fife. “The building was scaffolded but only to a certain level. To pull off the finials, they built a frame and pulley system above the scaffolding.”

The company subcontracted with a Texas company specializing in copper work to build parts of the finials that needed replacement.

“It was definitely a job everyone was excited to be around … because of the historic significance of it and the technical challenges” Alton said.

That pride of workmanship permeated the project.

“There was a greater sensitivity to ‘try and get that perfect’ as opposed to ‘just do it,’” said Dugan, who was elected to the Tacoma School Board after he began work on the project. “There was a lot at stake.”

In May, the landmarks commission honored the Tacoma School District with a “2006 Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation Award” for the renovation.

“They preserved the exterior of the building, added new period windows and really brought the exterior of the building to where it was originally,” said historic architect Richard Cardwell, who was on the district’s historic advisory committee. “They made a huge effort to save a landmark building.”


From the start, officials knew renovation and expansion of the 1,800-student school would be more costly than building a new high school. It’s simply more expensive to restore and modernize a historic school, said Peter Wall, Tacoma School District director of planning and construction.

The initial $91 million estimate was higher than the new construction of several recent South Sound high schools, including the $77.7 million, 1,800-student Mount Tahoma campus that opened in 2004 and the 1,250-student Graham-Kapowsin High School that opened last year for $42 million.

But Stadium lies within the realm of other historic renovations. The state Capitol project, completed in 2004, cost $118 million. The Seattle School District encountered construction cost escalation in its just-completed renovation and expansion of the 1922 Roosevelt High School, said spokesman Peter Daniels. Originally estimated at $88 million, the project came in at $93.8 million. The district’s seen per-square-foot costs skyrocket recently because of higher materials and labor costs, Daniels said.

The 1,600-student school will open this fall.

If Stadium’s unforeseen site challenges weren’t enough, the cost of building materials started to soar in 2004, just as construction was starting.

The project allocation, including everything from building materials to permits to classroom furniture, is now $108 million – 18.7 percent above the estimate – though the final cost might be less.

The district’s Wall says the cost was “absolutely” worth it.

“I don’t think the School District would want to do it any other way,” he said. “Because of the nature of the building, its importance to the community and region, the district wanted to ensure every effort was taken to not only preserve but enhance for future generations the icon that Stadium is.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694


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