By Paul McDonnell AIA
On Saturday, September 29, McKinley Vocational High School
reopened after a two year long renovation project. The $50,000,000 project was part of Buffalo's Joint School Construction Program that will ultimately renovate 48 schools at a cost of $1.4 billion. Buffalo's largest public school serving over 1100 students is now even larger (320,000 square feet) and emerges as a state-of-the-art- facility equal to any school in New York State.
Originally designed in 1965, McKinley High School was built to train students in the building trades professions. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilating and air conditioning were taught here and upon graduation thousands of the school's graduates would gain employment as skilled tradesmen all over Western New York. The school would also develop sophisticated programs in horticulture, aquatics and printing. Many men and women would owe their livelihood to their education at McKinley.
Fortunately McKinley was an extremely well constructed and equipped vocational high school. Floors were finished in terrazzo, tile wainscoting adorned all the corridors and the building had new boilers and air conditioning that provided efficient climate control. Large shops gave students the opportunity to learn how to service heating and air conditioning systems and fabricate sheet metal duct work. They were trained to install plumbing fixtures and all the necessary water and waste lines servicing them. But most impressive was the three storeys tall carpentry shop large enough to build a house in.
Once the students completed the house, aircraft hangar doors could be opened which allowed it be transported by flat bed truck to a Buffalo neighborhood where the house was re-assembled. McKinley also had a sophisticated horticulture and aquatics program with an expansive greenhouse, and nestled in an exterior courtyard a large aquatics pond that allowed students to raise fish, reptiles and other species as part of their educational experience.
Compared to the other Buffalo High Schools such as City Honors and Lafayette which are a century old, McKinley was relatively new. Yet at 50 almost years old it was in need of significant upgrades. Built when students graduated with a vocational education diploma, students were not required to take the science and mathematics courses they need today to receive a NYS Regents Diploma. Classrooms were undersized, science labs were inadequate, administrative space was lacking and special education spaces were under represented. On the plus side, McKinley had a spacious cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium.
From the outside though, it lacked the majesty and splendor of other Buffalo high schools. While virtually all of the other Buffalo high schools have a strong civic presence with their soaring towers, well defined entrances and elaborate architecture, McKinley was quite frankly mundane and ordinary. Located amongst the city's most important museums, H.H. Richardson's Psychiatric Center and Buffalo State College, McKinley was a forgettable building that a visitor would not even know how to enter.
To address these challenges, The Buffalo Public Schools in collaboration with LP Ciminelli
selected a number of Architects to submit their ideas and proposed design concepts. In 2008 Cannon Design
Cannon chose to create a new four story addition positioned at a slight angle relative to the existing building, yet parallel to Elmwood Avenue and oriented to the historic Rockwell Hall at Buffalo State College to the south. In fact anyone standing at the end of the corridors of the new addition is provided with a wonderful view of the clock tower at Rockwell Hall. Situated close to Elmwood, the addition is connected by corridor "bridges" at the north and south creating an enclosed trapezoidal courtyard that serves as an outdoor classroom supporting the school's horticulture program. The addition also forms the northern boundary of a new entrance plaza where students can congregate at the start and end of the school day.
A five-story terra cotta fin wall serves as a modern interpretation of the towers that grace Buffalo's early 20th century high schools and the addition's strong cantilevered massing defines the plaza and new main entrance. All of this creates a strong visual impact along Elmwood Avenue. Inside this new 40,000 square foot structure are 20 new classrooms and a new larger office suite for the principal and her staff.
Significant renovations occurred inside the existing building as well. Undersized classrooms were enlarged and the amount of windows was tripled in each room. Every classroom received an interactive white board, six computers and all new furniture. Eight new science labs with state-of-the-art prep rooms were constructed; the library was enlarged by one third and totally refurbished with a new circulation desk and new furniture (image below). A new skylight and interior window walls at each end brighten this formerly dark space. Every space within McKinley is now accessible to students, faculty and visitors with disabilities.
The Career Technical Education (CTE) sections of the buildings received upgrades also. The utilitarian three hundred foot corridor connecting the academic and CTE shops has become a "student street" with exposed utilities, suspended acoustical "clouds" and student display spaces along the walls. New Art rooms were created in this area along with a "virtual enterprise" suite; an office setting that trains students how to run a business within their trade. New classrooms were also constructed adjacent to many of the shops to integrate the hands-on shop training such as carpentry or plumbing with the theoretical classroom experience.
At the southern end of the building housing the horticulture and aquatics department, the fifty year old greenhouse was replaced with what may be the largest educational greenhouse in Western New York. It contains a sophisticated automatic irrigation and climate control system that automatically opens and closes the clerestory windows as needed. McKinley can now expand their horticulture capabilities and continue to grow Christmas poinsettias, Easter lilies and summer annuals. A new store front adjacent to the south parking lot was constructed so the public can take advantage of the students handiwork by letting them buy what they produce; another example real world education.
The school district has also strived to make the building as "green" as possible. The most sustainable thing Buffalo has done in the entire JSCB project is to re-use the building, but there were other measures incorporated into the design as well. A new chiller replaced the original high "VOC" containing unit. A new computerized energy management system improves both comfort and efficiency and all lighting now has energy efficient lamps and electronic ballasts. Rainwater run-off from the building is re-used. The new entrance canopy directs water to gutters that irrigates the "rain garden" outside the main lobby and water draining from the roof of the new addition is collected in an underground tank that can be pumped to water the plants in the courtyard gardens. The district's first green roof atop the one storey administrative section can be seen by the students from the corridors of the new addition.
We in the Buffalo Schools always knew what a special and unique building McKinley was. Everything that happened behind the walls, such as the construction of houses, a sophisticated horticulture program, vocational training that was unmatched in any school in the area, and a commitment to excellence by the administration, staff, and students was something the public was generally unaware of. We feel we met the goal to make the exterior as special as possible and reflect the exceptional things that were happening within the building. Residents and visitors have always marveled at our magnificent early twentieth century school buildings. Now we have given them a twenty first century facility to marvel at.
Paul McDonnell AIA is Director of Facilities Planning, Design and Construction for the Buffalo Schools, President of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, History and Culture, Chair of the Buffalo Preservation Board and Board member of The Buffalo/WNY Chapter of the American Institute of Architects