Strolling through 100-year-old West High School feels like stepping into a time machine. After rebuilding in 1922, another wing has been added to the school’s original skeleton almost every decade since then.
The result, according to architects hired to rebuild the historic building, is a claustrophobic campus with narrow hallways and classrooms that have been split in half to accommodate a growing student body. Some rooms designed to accommodate 20 students have 40 seats.
As one of the oldest existing schools in Utah, West High harbors its share of relics: a stadium-style choir room that makes wheelchair navigation difficult, problematic heating and cooling systems, and 13 unsecured entrances built well before the spread of modern day mass shootings . The Frankenstein nature of the wings requires them to undergo unique maintenance.
The district school board hired Salt Lake City-based VCBO Architecture to conduct a feasibility study for the school’s reconstruction. The District has commissioned Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects to conduct the same type of study at Highland High School and will hear feedback on Highland in its auditorium at 7pm on Thursday.
On Wednesday evening, VCBO presented its plan for West’s feasibility study with a timeline extending through February.
“You guys, as a school and as a school district, work and adapt to the site rather than letting the building, the site and the school do the work for you,” said architect Brian Peterson.
And yet some people don’t want to see it.
“I don’t doubt their intentions at all, but I was absolutely upset,” said Karissa Valenzuela Nelson, a 2011 graduate of West High School. “It’s like a weird department.”
After attending several schools, Valenzuela Nelson said late-night sewing for theater productions in West was the only school that felt like home to her.
She’s emotionally connected to “the tiny little details — like the gorgeous, almost medieval art deco fringes and the roof,” she said. Even the lockdown due to the infamous bats, which often show up at school during their migration season, made Western students “feel like they were part of something,” she said.
West High School alumnus and parent Jared Wright said the “admiring eye” he once had for the school began to see more flaws when he became principal in 2020. He told the audience of about 50 parents, alumni and community members that he understood their passion for the school but encouraged them to keep an open mind.
“We don’t have a plan right now,” said Paul Schulte, executive director of the district’s emergency services. “We start with a blank sheet of paper.”
Schulte emphasized that the first priority of the study will be to provide the best possible learning environment for students, but the second priority will be to honor West High School’s legacy.
The architects, who said they walked every inch of the school and went to a football game to try and appreciate its spirit, highlighted some of the Art Deco styles on the building’s facade as a potential source of inspiration.
West and Highland High School can only be rebuilt if the school board asks residents to approve a bond issue — which would be the first time the district has applied for a bond issue since 1999, when voters passed a $136 million Expenditure proposal for the renovation, reconstruction and construction of the elementary and middle schools.
At this time, the district and VCBO are working to determine how much space to allocate to each area of the building to generate layout proposals and cost estimates to guide their request for a November 2023 bond issue.
The district paid VCBO $450,000 to conduct the feasibility study. Wednesday’s meeting was the first in a series of public briefings to be held over the coming months. The listening sessions will be broadcast live and translated into Spanish.
The company, along with county officials, will meet with teachers and students for a workshop on November 19-20.
The building was upgraded to be earthquake safe during the first wave of a decade-long effort to modernize all district schools, beginning in 1992. Schulte indicated that if it proved to be the best option, the school could put some of the existing structures into operation in the remodel.
Schulte took questions and feedback from viewers with the architects and said they will continue to respond to questions online.
VCBO has also created an online poll to receive comments and questions from the community.
Schulte said West High School would not be moving to a new location when asked about the possibility by a member of the audience.
As far as the sports facilities are concerned, Schulte promised: “We will not make any compromises. Every student who attends a school in Salt Lake City deserves the same quality school and facility as every other student in the state of Utah.”
Architects pointed to teachers having to use swamp coolers and space heaters as examples of how the aging infrastructure is making the building more expensive to operate. One of the aims of the study is to make the school as sustainable as possible, speakers said, with one suggesting the school could install solar panel canopies to cover electric buses.
But one parent asked that officials provide estimates of the cost of maintaining the school versus replacing it before the district commits to a plan to rebuild. Schulte said he was sure the information would be released at future meetings.
While enrollments are declining at many of the district’s elementary schools, West has maintained its enrollment. According to bid packages for the project, it currently has around 2,700 students and the new building will accommodate around 3,000.
“We want a school that will serve the students for the next 100 years,” said architect Alex Booth.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2022/09/08/heres-what-expect-salt-lake-city/ West High School is planning a redesign of the course