Special Reports

Historic items being preserved in renovation of Stadium High

Today we tell a refreshing tale of public promises being kept.

It's about Stadium High School, Tacoma's most recognizable architectural icon. (Sorry, Union Station. Sorry, Old City Hall.)

At a crucial point in last year's $450 million school construction bond campaign, school Superintendent James Shoemake promised that the school would be sensitively restored and that the district would listen to the historic preservation community.

With the election won, such a promise could have been forgotten. But a look at the architectural plans and a talk with members of a special Historic Advisory Committee suggests that this one isn't being forgotten.

The unfortunately nicknamed HAC consists of Tacoma architect Gene Grulich, former City of Tacoma historic preservation officer Elizabeth Anderson, and Richard Cardwell, a Seattle architect hired to be the historic conservator of the building. Karla Forsbeck of Cardwell's firm works with the HAC.

Someone else worries about the educational program. Someone else worries about the budget. The HAC speaks only for the nearly century-old building.

That's what it did when early plans retained few of the interior features known by preservationists as character defining elements. Certainly the interior of the school appears less historic than the exterior - thanks to a comparatively plain starting point and decades of renovations and modifications. But there are elements of Frederick Heath's building worth saving.

After meetings between members of the architectural team - Merritt+Pardini and Bassetti Architects - and the HAC, several significant elements survived.

The most important will be the stage and the proscenium arch of the auditorium. Since a new theater will be built in an addition across the street, the old auditorium was to have been replaced by two floors of classrooms, but the HAC persuaded the architects to find a compromise.

Four new classrooms - instead of eight - will fill the space, and the two-story stage and arch will remain as an informal gathering space and small performance area. The bricked-in windows above the front entrance and in the turrets will be opened up.

The second major element to be retained is the existing use of interior space. Gone is the notion of opening up a great room at the entrance with a view of the water. Instead, the existing layout will survive. A visitor to the renovated building will recognize the entrance and the hallways as well as the arches, high ceilings, deep window openings and set-back doorways.

The HAC is pushing for smaller elements, including the slate blackboards, the wood trim in the hallways and classrooms, the doors and hardware, vintage drinking fountains and bathroom tile, and the skylights that once brought light into the interior. Such details add up.

"You can get a cumulative effect that looks like a historic building or you can have a cumulative effect that looks like a generic building," Anderson said.

In case you feel that preservation is acing out education or budget, the plans include all of the classroom, computer, science, art, music and athletic space requested. A new gymnasium finally will be able to hold all 1,800 students for assemblies. The library will be larger. The commons/lunchroom space will be large enough for two lunch periods instead of three. There will be twice as much parking.

And according to Lee Pardini and Paul Popovich of Merritt+Pardini, it appears that it can be built within the $85 million budget.

"I'm quite pleased with the way things are going so far, and they look good for the future as well," said HAC member Grulich.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@mail.tribnet.com