Historic high school reopening after two-year renovation

Stadium High School in Tacoma undergoes a massive renovation and expansion that restores the 100-year-old ‘Brown Castle’ and brings the school into the virtual age.

September 3, 2006 

Stadium High School’s fairy-tale turrets and majestic setting overlooking Commencement Bay have enthralled onlookers for a century – even as its interior gradually disintegrated into a mishmash of outdated, dysfunctional spaces.

But beauty is no longer only brick-deep at Tacoma’s grand chateau.

“Now these students have not only the tradition that preceded them but a facility that’s state-of-the-art,” said Angela Thomas, a Stadium English teacher who also graduated from the North End school in 1967. “It’s the best of both worlds. It’s absolutely fabulous.”

Stadium’s reopening after two years of construction marks the rebirth of an architectural and sentimental icon for generations of Tacomans.

The renovation, at a cost approaching $108 million, has transformed the castle into a 21st-century learning environment while respecting its history.

When Stadium reopens Wednesday, faculty can teach with the help of built-in multimedia projectors and electronic “Smartboards” – interactive chalkboards that display Internet pages, DVDs and teachers’ handwriting.

New but historically reminiscent “acorn” light fixtures will brighten the corridors. Teens can run their fingertips across newly crafted chair rails and picture rails made of vertical-grain fir, just like the wooden trim that originally lined the halls.

From the relocated library, where data and electrical outlets abound, students can gaze out at the bay or the top of Stadium Bowl, where Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Warren Harding once spoke.

The project removed and rebuilt nearly all of the castle’s interior to meet contemporary instructional needs and building codes, while restoring selected features to their original luster.

Equally significant, the school’s 1975 science and industrial arts annex was razed. The performing arts center housing a theater, two gyms, music facilities and other classrooms now stands in its place.

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma sees the renovation as part of the movement to preserve the city’s historic buildings.

“What’s really exciting about the reclamation is that they’ve truly restored the building,” said Baarsma, who graduated from Stadium in 1960. “What we saw in the old Stadium was a hodgepodge of various configurations over the years that weren’t consistent with the original intent and not particularly functional.”

The modernization and expansion is easily the School District’s most expensive construction project ever. The state is contributing $15 million, but the bulk of costs is financed through the district’s $450 million bond measure passed in 2001, which among other projects also paid for a new Mount Tahoma High School and improvements to Wilson, Foss and Lincoln high schools.

Since the district made its initial project estimate of $91.6 million, soaring construction prices and unexpected site and restoration challenges have pushed costs over the $100 million mark.

The district has allocated up to $108 million, including prospective contingencies, but the total might be less, said Peter Wall, the district’s director of planning and construction. The final price tag won’t be known for several months.

It would have been cheaper to bulldoze and rebuild Stadium, but district officials never entertained such an option for the beloved landmark.


It was supposed to be Tacoma’s grand hotel when construction began on the bluff in 1891. But that vision quickly fell victim to an economic depression.

Through the persistence of community leaders and financial backing from voters, the building’s shell and chateauesque design were salvaged to educate the fast-growing city’s youth. It opened in 1906 as Tacoma High School, only later to be named for the stadium that was constructed on campus.

The school lies within the Stadium-Seminary Historic District on national and state historic registers. It’s also listed individually on the Tacoma register.

Called the “Brown Castle” by staff and students, Stadium is the alma mater of two governors, council chambers-full of Tacoma civic leaders and countless married couples whose romances started on campus. Even Hollywood has recognized the school’s remarkable profile: It was the backdrop for the 1999 teen comedy “10 Things I Hate About You.”

Later this month, alumni and admirers will combine celebration of the school’s reopening with festivities marking Stadium’s 100th anniversary. Among the highlights: a two-day festival in the Stadium Bowl, at least 10 class reunions and a Saturday night concert in the Bowl featuring Blood, Sweat & Tears.

As a regional facilities coordinator for the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Gordon Beck has kept tabs on the Stadium project since its early planning stages. Beck, who visits schools throughout southwestern Washington, says Stadium’s origins as a hotel, its longevity as a school and its architecture make the school unique.

“How many buildings built in the 19th century are still housing and educating kids and expected to do so in the 21st century?” Beck said. “It’s going to be a crowning jewel for high schools in the district and the state as well. It’ll be a much-enhanced educational environment. I think we should all be excited.”


The Stadium Tigers look forward to returning to their den after a two-year relocation due to construction. During their temporary stay at the old Mount Tahoma High School campus in South Tacoma, students lost the sense of connection to their home building, said Stadium Student Body President Isaac Kastamad.

“Even though before it wasn’t nice as far as amenities, Stadium has a cache to it being in a castle,” the senior said. “For us, it’s a homecoming. This is where we’re supposed to be. We’re reunited with the building.”

The school’s reopening might be one of the drivers behind Stadium’s enrollment jump. Stadium enrolled about 1,650 students last year at Mount Tahoma but had 1,906 students on the books as of Tuesday and a waiting list of 40, said Principal Jonathan Kellett.

While the school’s design capacity is 1,800 students, the school can accommodate more. Class sizes can rise or classrooms that would otherwise be empty might be used during a teacher’s break period.

Returning students will find a more efficient and attractive campus:

 • The traffic obstacle that was the auditorium in the center of the castle’s third and fourth floors has been restored, opened up and reconfigured to allow students to pass through. No longer will teens on one side of the fourth floor be forced to walk down to the main floor, cross that floor and climb three flights of stairs to reach the other side of the fourth floor.

 • Two elevators in the castle and one in the performing arts center will allow people in wheelchairs access to all instructional and performance spaces.

 • The installation of 183 digital security cameras – instead of the previous seven – will give staff far more capability to keep an eye on students and outsiders throughout the 12.07-acre campus.

 • No more trekking four blocks to the Temple Theatre for all-school programs. The main gym is large enough to fit the entire student body. New features: Sections of lights can be dimmed to highlight center court, and rubber pads installed under the floor give added bounce to prevent knee injuries.

 • Growing teens will have more space to move, whether in the two-level cafeteria or the larger classrooms. New air exchange systems will allow students to breathe fresh air no matter where they are in school.

“It’s going to serve the needs of students in the 21st century,” said Principal Kellett, who played a major role in planning the school’s new instructional facilities. “There’s no problem with students being able to access technology. It’ll be a lot cleaner environmentally for the kids.”

And the facilities, both inside and out, are “drop-dead gorgeous,” Kellett said. He stood in the courtyard surveying the rejuvenated castle against a brilliant blue sky dotted by an occasional cloud.

“There’s the magic of the architecture. … A renovation of a school brings a sense of renaissance to the kids.”

Though most people who’ve toured the updated campus are effusive in their praise, complaints circulate that the performing arts center blocks too much of the castle view from First Street. The center stretches 4 feet higher and reaches closer to the sidewalk on First Street than the old annex. However, the view has improved from Second Street, where the center has replaced the six-story Broadview Apartments.

Some say the center’s imposing brick walls, on First and the alley facing the Stadium Business District, are too harsh and plain.

“The height alone doesn’t bother me; it’s the mass of it, especially from the public side looking down,” said Phillip Hill, a Tacoma Landmarks Preservation commissioner. “If it was more open and had less of a masonry wall it could have been better.”

The landmarks commissioners liked the glass walls, on the courtyard side, that reflect the castle image, but encouraged the district to soften the look of the center’s other sides and enhance the castle view, Hill said. However, he added, it’s difficult to order any property owner to spend more money than is available.

Project architect Paul Popovich said the building had to be high enough to accommodate the two regulation-size gyms and the theater “fly loft” above the stage that holds curtains and scenery. It also had to be low enough to satisfy a landmarks commission directive that it not block the Tacoma Avenue view of the castle’s upper roof; that’s one of the reasons the new building’s classrooms are underground.

“There’s a certain quality level of theater and standard of athletic facilities – so the basketball won’t hit the ceiling like in the old gym – to make it usable for the kids,” Popovich said. “It’s kind of a push and pull between the historic requirements and educational requirements. If you were to reduce it, it might look better historically, but the kids are the ones who’d suffer.”


On an August tour of the school, delighted students constantly broke into grins upon seeing the cavernous gym, the historically restored main office, the mall-style cafeteria with the diamond-patterned floor and the sparkling – and abundant – restrooms.

Seniors Heather DeFazio and Lindsey Piccirillo could barely recognize the school from their freshman days.

“It’s like a whole new school,” DeFazio said.

“It was worth the two-year wait,” Piccirillo added.

At one point, Kellett motioned to the countertops in the main office, and told the group of several dozen teens, “That light-colored wood is actually wood from the school’s structure that the builders saved.”

“Ohhhh,” the students responded in appreciative tones.

Like a stunned homeowner returning to a remodeled house on TV’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Megan Radford entered the new theater and gasped.

“Oh my, God!” she whispered, taking in the wide stage, the overhead banks of lights, the catwalks and the rows of cushioned-folding chairs.

The sophomore class vice president predicted that the new quarters will inspire kids to get more involved in activities. After all, who wouldn’t want to stick around the cool school?

“It’s amazing. I like the commons and all the old details. I love the whole school,” Radford said. “I’m pumped for the first day of school.”


The rejuvenation and expansion of Tacoma’s Stadium High School came together through the efforts of more than 1,000 workers and 40-plus companies. Here are the major contractors:

Project manager: Turner Construction Co.

Architect: Krei Architecture

School design: Bassetti Architects

General contractor/construction manager: Skanska USA Building

Surveyor and civil engineer: AHBL

Landscape: The Berger Partnership

Structural: Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Mechanical: Notkin Engineering Inc.

Electrical: Travis Fitzmaurice & Associates

Acoustical: Michael Yantis Associates

Kitchen: George Bundy & Associates

Theater: Knudson & Ward Inc.


• Skanska USA Building -- castle structure and Performing Arts Center

• Mortenson -- Performing Arts Center concrete

• Bayley -- parking garage

• DW Close -- electrical

• ACCO -- heating ventilation air conditioning/Lent Mechanical - plumbing Cosco Fire Protection

• ISEC -- casework, wood trim, specialties

• Cobra Roofing Services

• Pella Windows -- castle exterior windows

• All New Glass -- Performing Arts Center glass

• Otis Elevators

• DL Henrickson -- drywall and plaster

• Washington Architectural Hardware

• J&S Masonry -- Performing Arts Center masonry

• Crosby Masonry Restoration -- castle masonry restoration

• Purcell Painting & Coating

• Rubenstein's -- ceramic tile and vinyl composition tile

• Beresford Company -- carpet

• Bargreen Ellingson -- kitchen equipment

• Banzai -- hardwood flooring

• Acoustics Northwest -- acoustical ceilings

• FS & GS Services -- asbestos abatement

• Nuprecon -- castle demolition

• Wm. Dickson -- annex demolition

• Malcolm Drilling -- shoring

• Deeny -- utilities

• Mid Mountain Contractors -- excavation and site concrete

• Freeland Industries -- landscaping

• Woodworth & Co. -- paving

• Northwest School Equipment -- bleachers and seating

• Stagecraft Industries -- theater rigging and equipment


It’s more expensive to modernize a historic school than build a new school. One example: Workers threaded sections of steel beams, weighing 136 pounds per foot, through castle windows, hand-carried them to locations where they would be installed and used lifts to get them into place. On a new construction site, cranes could lift the entire beam into place, along with other heavy materials, saving time and labor costs.


On finding a tiny hidden staircase plastered behind the auditorium stage:

“We were standing here that day, and somebody said, How come that wall sweeps like that?’” said Jim Dugan, project manager for Krei Architecture.

“I think we just grabbed a double-jack and knocked a hole in the wall that day and found a staircase. It was way cool. We never knew what we were going to find next.”


The project’s largest engineering feat was creating a seismically enhanced internal frame for the castle without letting it collapse during construction.

That entailed tearing out the stairs and interior walls and installing temporary steel to support the original floor until it could be replaced with a 3-inch layer of concrete on each floor and “shear” concrete walls stretching from the rafters to ground-bearing soil.

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694


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