The MZA designed University School of Nashville’s Centennial Renovation recently opened to great excitement. The $8 million dollar renovation project called for 42,000 sf of renovated interior space in the middle and high school wings and almost 8,000 sf of new space.

In this blog post we’ll explore some of the challenges and special features of the project.

Looking to the future, honoring the past:

USN’s historic home was originally designed by renowned architects McKim, Mead and White, one of the most prominent late 19th/early 20th century architecture firms in the USA. Working in the Beaux Arts style with some Greek and Roman vocabulary they designed such buildings as Penn Station and Columbia University in NYC. Additionally, they were responsible for designing the east and west wing renovations of the white house.

To meet the challenges of honoring such an acclaimed building while adding a modern addition MZA needed to peel away all of the “evolution” (as opposed to intentional design) that the building had gone through over its life. Things like added fire escapes, superfluous overhead abandoned pipes and equipment, and the odd loading dock.

The addition is a foil to the symmetry and classicism of the original main building. We didn’t want to compete with McKim, Mead and White or try and make the new work somehow feel like an attempt to replicate it. Instead the choice was to respect the existing building by making the connection to it as transparent as we could, while understanding that a 2014 building needed to be “of our time”, in both form, spatial organization and materiality.

A new entrance:

The former entry at the head of the Gordon wing seemed to have become the entrance by default less than by design but, was as far away from the heart of the school as it could be. Moving the entrance opened up 800 sf of space formerly used for corridors and stairwells on 2 different levels.

Creating a transition from the addition and renovated spaces to the existing architecture:

Steel casing was used where we had to chop out sections of the old wall in many cases. This was done (a) to provide a transition and (b) because the inside of the exterior wall construction wasn’t finished (or attractive) so the steel covered that seam. One programming comment from the client was that the beautiful new project needed to be careful not to make all the old stuff feel really old and gross. To meet this goal the ceilings, lighting, flooring, etc in many of the older adjacent spaces that touched the addition were replaced so it doesn’t quite feel like “new” and “old”.

Connecting Spaces:

The reclaiming of “the connector” between the pool and Morris Gym was the spine of the project. The former redundant stairwells, which were 30 feet apart and both only connected basement to 2nd floor, were best used as the school’s tornado shelters, not as an effective means of linking spaces. The reclaimed Morris Gym band loft became “the connector”, linking lower and middle school at ground floor level, and providing a seamless way to move through the school.  But instead of simply making it a corridor, we grabbed the chance to bulge it out slightly into the gym. We created a space for people to gather and view the games while being out of the way of the traffic passing behind them. It’s since been dubbed “the skybox”. It's cool to see kids up there watching sports.

The basketball goal surround and "skybox"

Seizing the opportunity to do something unexpected, we used16 oz copper flat lok shingles to bring some of the exterior material indoors and also to use material to help script an identity. Drywall would get beaten up by basketballs and need constant maintenance and, concrete block seemed institutional.

The pool renovation:

The redesign of the pool was intentionally v2.0 instead of v1.1 – we were not trying to make the pool look like it used to be with green plaster ceilings and mosaic tile throughout. We knew we couldn’t lengthen the actual pool (which is only 20 yards long instead of 25 which is the modern standard) and couldn’t widen it (currently 3 lanes) because the work would quickly impact the building’s exterior, structure and functionality (and cost!). The tile was a lengthy discussion but ultimately we went for “simple and clean” – the pool area only got marginally larger, but it feels so much bigger because the walls and ceiling are white, the exterior windows are clear (previously were frosted) and the addition of glass visually tying the pool to the connector and the new entry don’t force the pool to be so “internalized”, but instead reveal it to the rest of the school.

The pool renovation features new finishes throughout; new windows, new HVAC system, and new pool systems including conversion from chlorine to salt. New lighting, new acoustical treatments. New built-in seating. The pool bottom was removed and the actual slope and depth changed.

Watch and read local news coverage of the grand opening using the links below: