by Jeffrey K. Elliott
At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the city of Hartford quietly opened the newly renovated and expanded Martin Luther King, Jr. Campus. While understandably overshadowed by contemporary events, the project represents a huge milestone for the community; the culmination of years of work by the school, city, state, and local officials; and a truly gratifying moment for the design and construction teams. Not only did the project restore a structure of significant importance to the city to a place of honor and pride, it also rehabilitated a 100-year-old building into an exciting, eclectic, and dynamic hub for student centered learning.
Originally opened in 1922 as Weaver High School, the beautifully detailed Thomas Snell building was renovated in the 1970s to become Martin Luther King Middle School. In 2018, JCJ Architecture was retained to undertake design for the renovation and preservation of the 140,000sf Neo-Gothic building, and an expansion with 34,000 sf of new construction, comprising the existing middle school as well as Hartford’s 400-student Breakthrough Magnet North Pre-K-5 School. Although not on the historic register, the building is an integral part of a historic district and was subject to SHPO review and approvals. As part of the early planning and design process, we heard firsthand from teachers, administrators, parents, and neighbors the importance of the building to the community. Partnering with the project’s many stakeholders, our goal was to adapt the building for next generation learning and to restore its original dignity and character.
JCJ quickly began to understand the significance of the earlier alterations and the variety of ways in which the Thomas Snell building had been altered and obscured. Examples include removal and replacement of numerous windows – many of them unique and some fitted with stained-glass – with Plexiglas, and metal decking and drywall installed in the gymnasium and auditorium, transforming them from beautiful, light filled spaces to featureless boxes. The building entry had also become a “hardened” rather than welcoming presence. While original features remained, including terrazzo floors and beautiful stone columns, many were in need of repair and maintenance.
The historically sensitive elements that were reinstated, repaired, or restored include era- and security-appropriate entry doors, exterior masonry details, stained and leaded glass windows, terrazzo floors, ornate plasterwork and decorative elements, and mezzanine level spaces in the auditorium and gymnasium. JCJ scoured old yearbooks and city archives to study window details and match them as closely as possible to the original. Where there was once opaque Plexiglas, today students have sunlight streaming in windows and a clear visual connection to the neighborhood and downtown Hartford. Where there were hard surfaces and disjointed materials, today contemporary finishes coexist respectfully and harmoniously with historic materials. Where there was a somber facade, today there is a vibrant presence that welcomes students and the community.
The response from students, staff, and the local community has been extraordinary. The building has come full circle and is once again a centerpiece for civic pride that will enrich students and the community for generations to come.
Jeffrey K. Elliott, AIA, LEED AP is a senior designer at JCJ Architecture.