Special Reports

Beauty gets a Beast in Stadium High renovation

Where is Stadium High School?

That was my most pressing concern as I stood at the corner of Tacoma Avenue and Stadium Way and observed that an unlovely hump of concrete appeared to have sprung up on the Earth’s back right in front of my favorite local landmark.

I could still see a slice of the full length of the “castle,” as Stadium is fondly called, but the rest was just the tips of towers.

The school, which opened in 1906, was originally intended as a tourist hotel for the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1890s. It is a towering, majestic chateau that stands on a bluff more than 200 feet above Commencement Bay and is closed until fall 2006 for a renovation, with a total price tag of $103 million.

The hump – a new performing arts and physical education building – is a $29 million part of this renovation.

It isn’t entirely polite to refer to it as “the hump.” But I’m not going to deny that it’s the Beast to the castle’s Beauty.

It will have its inner qualities, including a state-of-the-art theater, something Stadium has long deserved, and music rooms, locker rooms and gymnasiums.

And architects point out that its outer qualities are not yet final. Facade walls will be made less fortresslike by canopies and a long glass corridor that faces the castle and wraps toward Stadium Way.

But what’s visible now is disappointing. The facades are four styles of concrete blocks, a bleached tan in a striated pattern, a rough dark gray, a subtle pastel mosaic and, covering the majority of the building, a flat, dull gray that looks like nothing so much as cinder block.

That these workmanlike materials face Stadium’s slender Roman brick and august sandstone doesn’t help. And the new building bumps like a dullard up to the edges of its property, while the castle poses behind it as though for a camera in the sky.

I’m inclined to believe the new building – a seemingly unfortunate solution to an admittedly difficult set of problems – won’t win any beauty contests.

I’m not alone.

Ben Gilbert was on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission when original designs were approved for the new building. (A new parking garage will also stand next to it, across from Stadium Bowl.)

Gilbert described the new construction as “massive, fortresslike” and “inappropriate.” The “unbroken fortress wall” abutting First Street leaves little room for plants that could soften it, he wrote in an e-mail.

Landmarks commissioner Phillip Hill said he drove by recently and was “astounded.”

“I think a lot of the materials got dumbed down, a lot of the aesthetic details got cut for cost reasons,” Hill said. “It seems like it was going to be much more graceful, with detailing to break up that massing, to add shadow lines and lighten it up.”

Hill also was surprised at the building’s height from Tacoma Avenue, the neighborhood nexus.

Records of the commission’s meetings on file at the city say the building was to be 56 feet tall.

The current architectural project manager, Jim Dugan of the firm Krei, said the height has not changed, but that the building is only 50 feet above its main floor elevation.

An annex building torn down to make way for the new arts-gym building was about 15 feet shorter than its replacement was set to be, said Jeff Ryan, former project manager.

Lorne McConachie of the Seattle firm Bassetti was lead architect on the initial design for the whole renovation project.

In a recent phone conversation, McConachie repeatedly described designing the new building as “challenging.”

Gyms and theaters are large spaces that don’t fit well in the castle, McConachie said.

Architects tried to keep them in the castle by considering restoring a century-old idea from the building’s original construction to add a veranda facing the water, he said. But the veranda didn’t provide enough room.

McConachie said an outbuilding was the best way to leave the castle uncompromised.

The outbuilding was intended to be “simple,” and to reference the castle without trying to replicate it. (Minutes from the commission meetings say the concrete references the castle’s sandstone lower level.)

A cardinal rule is that add-ons to historic buildings should be “differentiated” but “compatible,” according to standards set forth for renovations by the secretary of the interior.

Space was limited. A public outcry had followed the district’s proposal to overtake Rankos Drug and stretch a building up to Tacoma Avenue. And bad soil made it cost-prohibitive to locate the theater/gym where the parking garage will be, across from the athletic bowl instead of the castle, according to McConachie.

Then, the prices of steel, concrete and oil skyrocketed, and the weak economy of the early 2000s put some contractors out of business, raising demand and pushing those prices up, he said.

After Bassetti turned the project over to Krei in 2002, it was “significantly value-engineered,” or altered for cost reasons, McConachie said.

True, said Pete Wall, director of planning and construction at Tacoma schools. But he said budget constraints have prompted changes to every project he’s worked on for the last 20 years.

Dugan of Krei said explaining what was changed would be “a long and complicated discussion” that he didn’t have time for before this story went to press.

Ryan, who was involved prior to Dugan, said the new building once had “more of a terra-cotta finish to it” instead of the dull tones there now.

The late compromises, whatever they were, are a shame.

Yet in other ways, it was inevitable that this building wouldn’t be an ideal addition to the urban fabric, said Gene Grulich, a local architect on the Historic Advisory Committee that reviewed the renovation plans.

Great views of an urban school are rare, he said.

So when we nonhigh schoolers lay our eyes on this creature instead of our beloved castle, the best we can do is take comfort in the fact that, at least from a closer distance, the Beast doesn’t harm the Beauty.

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568