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Religious Transformation

The Building Team for a prep school in Brooklyn employs adaptive reuse to convert a historic church into a structurally dynamic middle school.

August 01, 2004 |

Four years ago, faced with preserving its historic exterior and at the same time meeting the demand for more space and information technology, Brooklyn's Packer Collegiate Institute decided upon a unique diversion from traditional reconstruction.

Employing a building-within-a-building approach, New York-based architect Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates HHPA developed a master plan for Packer that adapted a historic church and attached parish center for school use, resulting in a 74,512-sf, $20 million reconstruction project.

Nestled for nearly 160 years within a complex of historic buildings, Packer Collegiate Institute, an independent, secular, college prep school located in upscale Brooklyn Heights, saw its enrollment increase significantly during the 1990s. In 2000, the school hired HHPA to develop a master plan aimed at revamping the school's buildings.

At the time, Packer was serving over 900 students from preschool through 12th grade. Its campus consisted of three main components. The main building, built in 1853, and its various additions housed the lower, middle, and upper schools. Two other historic buildings — the parish center and Old St. Ann's, a landmark Episcopal Church built between 1867 and 1869 and designed by James Renwick, who also built St. Patrick's Cathedral and Calvary Church in Manhattan — had been purchased by the school in 1969. They were not being utilized as classroom space.

HHPA's plan called for renovating the church to house the middle school, dividing the main building for the upper and lower schools, and converting the parish house into a dining hall.

"The entire design needed approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission," says Sandy Polsak, owner's representative from New York-based Levien & Co. "They were particularly concerned with the maintenance of historic details."

Building within a building

The complex nature of the project tested the Building Team's innovation skills, especially given the historic status of the church. "Our main challenge was adapting the church interior to become Packer's middle school," says Hardy. (HHPA recently announced that it would split into three separate units: Hardy's firm, New York-based H3 Hardy Corporation; Malcolm Holzman's New York-based Holzman Moss Architecture; and Norman Pfeiffer's Los Angeles-based Pfeiffer Partners.)

Instead of building a structure separate from the church, the Building Team chose to construct 18 classrooms within the church nave, says Polsak. As a result, the exterior walls of the church remain visible from the hallways, creating interesting corridors for students.


Constructed using a “ship in a bottle” technique, 18 classrooms, 18 faculty offices, and three common spaces were built inside St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.

"Melding 150-year-old construction with the infill required by modern technology created problems that were vast and varied, and all required an especially fluid, collaborative approach for resolution," says Hardy.

In particular, HHPA had to figure out how to transition the historic architecture of the church to one more reflective of the 21st century.

The most difficult preservation issue had to do with the church's stained-glass windows. Due to its coloration and aging, the stained glass did not allow sufficient light to pass through for educational purposes. And, says Hardy, although the windows contributed to the church's character, "the presentation of specific religious imagery was inappropriate" due to the school's secular nature.

The Building Team replaced the stained-glass windows with clear diamond-shaped leaded panes, according to Polsak. Seventy percent of the stained glass was donated to museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and St. Joseph's Stained-Glass Museum.

Structural gymnastics

One of the structural challenges of the project involved connecting five existing buildings, each with a distinct style and built during different time periods, according to John Patrick Arnett, senior engineer and project manager from New York firm Robert Silman Associates.

The variety of work required on the various structures kept the Building Team on its toes. "[The project] had historic renovation, steel structure in an existing building, a partially restrained steel frame structure, a steel moment frame structure, new concrete structure, and new curtain wall structure," says Arnett. "We had to design on the fly, as new field conditions were uncovered."

Moreover, the structural design itself added to the challenge of reconstructing Packer. "Logistically, building one structure inside another presents issues, such as getting materials into place and paying attention to the sequence of construction," he says. The church had brick cavity walls typical of mid-19th-century architecture, which meant that the Building Team had to add channels to the walls to strengthen the existing beams.

The plan also called for the balcony to be removed, which necessitated the removal of the tall cast iron columns that reinforced the roof and braced the balcony's structure. The team was forced to rebrace the columns and remove the rest of the balcony. Small portions of the balcony were left in place to brace the columns until the new steel structure reached the columns, according to Arnett. "We then tapped into the columns at our new second-floor level and attached a U-shaped brace to the column that was allowed to 'float' in the vertical direction to avoid transmitting any gravity load to the column," he says.

Arnett says he was particularly pleased with the new open tower inside the church. "The feeling you get along the aisles is one of new and old coexisting, as well as a real sense of open space," he says. "Watching the steel tower go up inside the [church] was one of the most interesting and unusual things I have seen on a job site."

A change of habitat

The effort transformed St. Ann's Church into a middle school with 18 student classrooms, 18 faculty offices, and three common spaces that rise five levels into the church's nave. Built like a ship in a bottle, the classrooms fit snuggly inside the confines of the church, leaving circulation space for hallways while still allowing the school community to appreciate the historic qualities of the church from the inside.

With the middle school now located inside the old church, the main building was divided to provide separate spaces for the lower (K-4) and upper (9–12) schools. This division afforded each entity more room for special needs, such as college counseling rooms for the upper-school students. In addition, the parish house was revamped into a dining commons.

A three-story glazed wall was built to join the middle school to the other buildings in the campus. This 30-foot-tall triangular structure, called the "Link," is supported on one end by a concrete stair tower and by columns at two points. "The analysis and design of that structure for wind loads was unique," says Arnett. The open space created between the three stories provides ground-floor classroom space, gathering areas for students to socialize, and easier access between buildings for the students.


Students in a physics class play with balloons above the air registers of the “Link,” a 30-foot-long, three-story glazed curtain wall.

The campus now has wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) access, and resource and seminar rooms were built to provide greater Internet connectivity for tech-savvy students and faculty. (The school has instituted a mandatory laptop policy requiring class work to be completed online.) Arts and athletic areas of the main building have also been upgraded.

Funding for the project came from a capital campaign and an industrial development agency bond issue, which is to be repaid by contributing the operating surplus from the school, according to Kapell.

In terms of cost, renovating the old church turned out to be more expensive than building new, but there was no choice, says Packer Trustee Martin Kapell. "We did take on a stewardship role when we purchased the church, and because of its landmark status, it had to remain intact," says Kapell. "Building a new building elsewhere on the campus would have taken up the majority of our precious open space."

As schools buildings in New York and other older cities age, and urban enrollments continue to increase, Arnett sees the shortage of classroom space getting worse. "We have seen schools doing anything they can to get more space in the last couple years," he says. "We've added stories to historic buildings, burrowed into bedrock, and created new additions where possible. In New York City, any space is fair game, regardless of its original use."

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