This public high school for 400 students in the School District of Philadelphia brings together customary college-preparatory education with an emphasis on the study of history, law, and the US Constitution. Conveniently located to allow the students use the resources of the Constitution Center on nearby Independence Mall, the School District leased the 65,000 square foot building and the high school was constructed as a tenant fit out. Different from some more conventional construction methodologies, this innovative approach allowed the high school to be designed and constructed in less than a year.
The unique structure of this building, originally built in 1976 and commissioned by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies and subsequently subdivided in 2001 for a branch library, posed a challenge in creating a cohesive educational environment. The original building had very few windows, limited public access, and archival storage floors with diagonal structural framing and low clearances.
Varenhorst designed the adaptive reuse of the structure to both optimize the requirements of its new inhabitants to fit within unique existing features and to provide for modifications to improve the interior quality of the spaces. The new ground floor Entry Lobby accommodates the entire school for gatherings and leads directly to the Administrative Offices on the second floor. Windows installed in three facades provide natural lighting and fresh air to offices, classrooms and corridors. Interior windows installed in the existing light well now permit the illumination of interior corridors and visual connection of floors. The half floors—those with the potentially detrimental diagonal trusses—became space well suited for offices, a fitness room and an art room. As a convenience, these rooms are column-free.