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School Reconstruction: Riverside High

The Buffalo Public Schools Reconstruction Project is the largest preservation effort ever in Buffalo’s history, and Phase III is near completion.  The approximately $1.3 billion effort to reconstruct the schools has resulted in monumental improvements in these dated but splendid buildings, and Riverside High, at 51 Ontario Street, is no exception.

Under the management of LPCiminelli Inc., and with oversight by BPS Associate Architect Paul McDonnell, Riverside is in the final stages of being revamped and reconstructed to fit the needs of the 21st century in stunning style, while preserving the character of the original design, built in the 1920s. The final cost of renovations will be near $29 million for Riverside.
Riverside is a 9 through 12 high school with approximately 850 students. The 9th graders have been moved to School #51 on Hertel for this construction project that has tackled different areas of the school in phases, allowing the top three grades to stay on site.  Begun in 2008, the school will be nearly complete this April, and will accept all four class levels next fall.
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LPCiminelli Senior Project Manager Thomas Renauto and McDonnell led a tour through the building, and talked about the new programs it would house for student and community participation, as well as showing off a school with all the bells and whistles any student, teacher, administrator or alumni could ask for. 
McDonnell says that Superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools Dr. James A. Williams has plans to put a School of Entrepreneurship in the building, and would like to see it open from 8AM to 10PM for those purposes.  Kaleida Health maintains the school infirmary, and HSBC maintains a banking program for students, but the entrepreneurial school would invite after-hours business owners from the community to mentor present students and continuing education students through various modules pertaining to business.

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One of the most stunning features of Riverside are the renovations that respect historic detail, such as the tall, mahogany wood frame replacement windows, and the refinished auditorium seats (left).  “We’re actually lucky that there wasn’t money to renovate this school in the 70s,” McDonnell says.  He reasons that had there been funding, so much of the character of the grand building would have been wiped out in the process.  
Instead, the architect on Riverside, Wendel Duchscherer, was able to take into account the beautiful carved moldings and reliefs, the rich, dark wood cabinets and add to it, and then use his urban sensibilities to link to his more modern design of new space that considers efficiency of operation and technical needs.
McDonnell’s bent as a preservationist has a lot to do with these renovations that honor the original character of the school.  He is president of Campaign for Greater Buffalo and the acting chair of the Buffalo Preservation board.  He recalls 15 years ago, when he took the job as architect for the Buffalo Public schools, and the State Education Department sent him to other districts within the system to see what they were doing with school reconstruction.  “Now the SED sends other schools in the Big 5 District here to use us as a model for their reconstruction projects,” McDonnell states.  “Syracuse and Yonkers have come through and walked away impressed, and Rochester will be coming.  They want to use a similar vehicle for their reconstruction.”
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The massive school sits on a hill, and one of the first noticeable renovations is the grading of the land, down about 4 feet on either side of the grand front entrance, to basement level.  New ground floor entrances will flank the massive center staircase, and essentially make the onetime basement a first floor.  
The alumni room will be located to the left, flanked by antique dark wood and glass cabinets taken from other parts of the school, where all memorabilia such as trophies and yearbooks will be stored under reproduction schoolhouse lighting pendants from the period.  

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Just beyond, a former inner courtyard has been transformed with a skylight, four stories up, that will be a senior lounge and school of entrepreneurship gathering place.  Looked onto by classrooms and hallways from above, the space will be a meld of the past, with original external walls, but filled with lounge seating and techie comforts.
Everything that could be salvaged in the original 
building was incorporated into the new design and given new muscle with technical upgrades. For instance, the boiler was renovated and supplies steam heat to the old style radiators, but with a computerized system. The alumni who have come knocking at the door, according to McDonnell, have been pleased with even the unfinished aspects of McDonnell’s gracious impromptu tours.  
The path to the new wing directs foot traffic by way of futuristic looking recessed rectangles of ceiling light that signal change, even as they shine down on the laminate floors and metal lockers of the old school variety.  The floor pattern opens up too, gradually spreading tile colors so that there’s a flow toward the new.  These visual cues, though not exactly arrows, give the feeling of one realm receding, and a new one dawning.  As much as there is talk of the psychology of design, here the intention is truly felt.
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Once in the new wing, there’s a brand new workout room, followed by a state of the art press box, overlooking the stadium (below), with its new bleachers, scoreboard, speakers and lighting. 
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The view is wide over the pretty much intact neighborhood’s good mix of double and single homes.  Riverside is a neighborhood school, not one that needs to be tested into, and it’s gearing up to serve its community in style.  
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The cafeteria a
nd gymnasium (above) have been revamped and renewed, and the gym, with it’s new bleachers, nets and shiny new floors, sports a logo at center court that Renauto had made into a huge sticker from a design Principal Michael Mogavero found on a T-shirt. The topmost floors of Riverside were off limits for the tour due to construction, but expect more coverage of the fully completed school when the time comes.
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Though Riverside is one of the few schools that have continued on-site student education during the renovation process, there will still be some surprises for the teachers and students when they return to a fully complete school next fall.  And the class of 2013 will have one beautiful place to come home to, with innovations to its curriculum as well as its physical space.
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See this wiki file for a list of the schools in each phase of reconstruction.
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