Jefferson-Houston ready for its close-up

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

The new Jefferson-Houston School building may incorporate architectural elements from the surrounding historic Parker Gray neighborhood on the outside, but its innards are designed with innovations intended to maximize learning.

Just one month before students return for classes, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the first Alexandria public school built since the new T.C. Williams building was completed in 2007. Members of the Board of Architectural Review got a sneak preview of the new Jefferson-Houston last weekend, and were impressed by what they saw.

Although the schoolhouse draws inspiration from other historic structures in the neighborhood, city preservationist Al Cox stressed that the building is not just a copy.

“We weren’t trying to reproduce those old buildings,” Cox said. “We were just looking for the architectural DNA of the neighborhood. We’re expecting the building to last 100 years, easy, so it needs to be multipurpose in both architectural layout and the materials used.”

The school will serve pre-K through eighth grade and house upwards of 750 to 800 students.

The project was budgeted at about $36 million when it was approved in 2012. ACPS spokeswoman Kelly Alexander said its final cost is $44.2 million.

Walking through the nearly finished building, one theme is apparent: natural light. There are plenty of skylights and bay windows, while the ceilings of each classroom are slanted to better project light from windows to the center walls.

John Montemayor, a Brailsford & Dunlavey project manager brought on by the district during the construction, said many design decisions were made with instruction in mind. Each grade’s hallway and classrooms are color-coded, and instead of one large cafeteria, each grade has its own common eating area near its classrooms.

“It builds a sense of community and pride in students’ grades,” Montemayor said.

And instead of a couple of large bathrooms along each hallway, classrooms are set up in a suite configuration, with two classrooms sharing a conjoining bathroom.

School leaders are installing other amenities as well. The nursing suite will include a dental unit for students, and Montemayor said a kitchen lab lets teachers use cooking to explain aspects of the standard curriculum.

As for the old building, crews already have begun the process of demolishing it to make way for an artificial turf athletic field. Officials said the old Jefferson-Houston should be gone by January, with the field ready for play by the start of the 2015 school year.

After the walkthrough, Heath Wells, who served on the neighborhood work group when the project was first proposed, described the building as “fabulous.” And BAR member Purvi Irwin, a preservation architect, said she too was wowed.

“I’m definitely happy with it,” she said. “I’m glad they didn’t just recreate things to make it look ‘historic’. When you copy [historic buildings] you dilute it.”

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