A Historic School Gets a Second Life

In a center of Latino culture in San Antonio, a comprehensive redesign modernizes and opens up an aging high school, while respecting its heritage.

First opened in 1915, Sidney Lanier High School is a community fixture in the cultural heart of San Antonio’s historic West Side, with a significant number of fourth- and even fifth-generation students attending the school. Mural culture in San Antonio started at and around the school, and over decades much of the interior was painted with imagery that reflected the traditions and artistic talent of the community.

When LPA began to work with San Antonio Independent School District to plan the school’s future, preserving the rich cultural history was an important part of the discussion. The surrounding community’s affinity for Lanier was very clear; before the renovations commenced, residents held a memorial for the building.

“We were very aware of the responsibility to respect the past, while still providing educators and students the modern facility they needed to succeed,” says LPA Project Designer Federico Cavazos.

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Before the renovation, the century-old building was a windowless fortress.

The century-old, windowless, brick-clad building, a city within a city spanning the length of two football fields, was completely reimagined. A central atrium space was created, adding interior gathering spaces and promenades and opening up the entrance, crafting a true front door for this neighborhood landmark. Learning areas were filled with natural light, and different zones were created to support different curriculums.

“It feels like a brand-new building inside after the renovation,” Cavazos says. Current Principal Moises Ortiz describes the renovation as “like The Wizard of Oz going from black and white to color.”

The challenge and opportunity in the design process lay within the school’s fortress-like appearance and boxy design. Heavy walls, exterior brick arches and windowless classrooms meant the school could feel inaccessible, dark and closed off from the outside. The interior layout wasn’t easy to follow, leaving many disoriented. Students were cramped in small classrooms, with few meeting spaces outside of classrooms.

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Shared central spaces and light-filled corridors replaced dim hallways and confusing wayfinding.

But the building was structurally sound, and flexible enough for a strategic redesign. Saving the bones of the building would cut costs and reduce the carbon impact.

To make it work, LPA and its mechanical and structural consultants, Alderson Engineering and Alpha Consulting Engineers, helped develop a design that sliced off the roof and top section of the walls to add clerestory windows, while inserting a central entry nave to create the atrium and the open entryway — adding light and energizing the interior. Shared central spaces with stadium seating and light-filled corridors replaced the dim hallways and confusing wayfinding. Filling in the brick arches with windows illuminated the ground floor and opened the facility to the surrounding streets.

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For the district, redeveloping instead of stripping the building and starting from scratch was more economical, sustainable and quicker. The whole process was designed so contractors could work on half of the building while the other half held classes, avoiding significant disturbances in learning. Phasing the project allowed the district to reduce the portable-classroom load by half.

As a space and school, the new Lanier is more flexible. The purity of the boxy building was turned into an advantage, making it easier to create a system of rooms that could be shifted and combined to fit evolving needs and new classes. More-adjustable spaces for collaboration and socialization make layouts and classrooms more fluid, opening up the school, engaging different learning styles and allowing for different curriculums. Principal Ortiz said it was like plugging the school into 21st-century learning platforms.

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The entire facility was future proofed; technology throughout the facility underwent a significant upgrade, and major systems, including the roof, were replaced. Simultaneous enhancement to energy and HVAC systems will cut the school’s energy bill by 60%.

Thoughtful engagement and focusing on the value of the existing school was key through the process, Cavazos says.

There’s a connection between the quality of the building and the level of student engagement. If the kids feel they’re in an instructional setting that challenges them and promotes them to be more competitive, they’re going to grow. When they have every tool at their fingertips, the sky’s the limit.

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Adjustable spaces for collaboration and socialization enable different learning styles and curriculums.

LPA’s team, which included a former Lanier valedictorian, started the project with numerous pre-occupancy surveys. The feedback steered designers to address community concerns about security systems and the sterile, isolated interior learning environments.

The murals were a big part of those discussions. After recognizing the cultural and community importance of the works at Lanier, LPA surveyed artists and teachers, seeking the best way to celebrate the significant artwork. The final redesign re-created 10 key works and created a digital mural museum in the new building, preserving the art and its heritage to share with future generations of students. Spaces throughout the school have been reserved for current students to add their own contributions to this tradition.

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The new school opened to praise from educators and students, who have responded to the state-of-the-art facility.

“There’s a connection between the quality of the building and the level of student engagement,” Dr. Ortiz said. “If the kids feel they’re in an instructional setting that challenges them and promotes them to be more competitive, they’re going to grow. When they have every tool at their fingertips, the sky’s the limit.”