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High marks for new school

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / January 12, 2012
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Teachers and students will move into the new Wellesley High School next month as the $115 million project finishes five months early, and a few million dollars under budget.

The new building is resplendent with the latest technology and green features, yet it incorporates many elements representing the history of its predecessor, which was built in 1938.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful space to support teaching and learning,’’ said the school district’s superintendent, Bella Wong. “Our focus was on a building that would meet our needs for a long time. It’s meant to be durable, flexible, and functional.’’

Construction started in September 2009 and was completed last month. The remaining work involves the installation of furniture and technology in time for students and teachers to move in Feb. 28, their first day back from winter vacation.

Wellesley is one of three area communities slated to open new high schools in 2012. Wayland High School opened its new $71 million building on Jan. 3, and the new $78.5 million Natick High School is on track to open for the start of classes in the fall.

Meanwhile, work is wrapping up on the new athletic fields at Newton North High, which opened in September 2010 as the most expensive public school construction project in the state’s history. The final cost is expected to be $192.4 million, a savings of about $5 million from the initial prediction of $197.5 million.

In Wellesley, Roger Gurney, the project manager with Ryegate Inc., which was hired by the town’s Permanent Building Committee to oversee the work, said the new four-story building is about 280,000 square feet, or roughly 50,000 square feet larger than the existing school. It was built to hold 1,600 students.

The demolition of the old school and the construction of a new parking lot in its place will be done by end of the year. The 350-space parking lot will take up much of the footprint where the old school now sits, though there will be some green space left, including benches and plantings.

The new school on Rice Street has been built just 17 feet from the old school.

Originally, plans called for completing construction by March, then moving technology and furniture so that the new building would open in the fall. The demolition of the old school and construction of the new parking lot was set to be done by May 2013. In all, the entire project will be completed five months earlier than expected, Gurney said.

He said the project was initially expected to cost $130 million but is coming in closer to $115 million. The state will reimburse the town about $40 million.

In addition to featuring smart boards in every classroom, built-in sound systems in the band and chorus rooms, a rock-climbing wall in the gym, skylights for added natural light in the art rooms, and a central first-floor cafeteria with outdoor seating, the building also has many green elements.

The school features a 100,000-gallon tank that will gather rainwater to be used for the toilets, for example. There is a green roof with plantings that will help with insulation and energy efficiency, and help protect the roof from sun and weather damage.

Gurney said there are two geothermal wells to provide heat and cooling in the administrative offices and fitness areas, solar panels on the roof, and a shade system in several classrooms to help control the amount of direct sunlight.

All classrooms are arranged on the outside of the building to make use of natural light, all lighting fixtures are energy efficient, and the library and auditorium feature displaced ventilation systems to save energy and improve the air quality, Gurney said.

Other highlights of the building include historical elements that were either moved or replicated from the old school.

Front and center at the base of the staircase at the building’s entrance are the eagle and weathervane that were atop the cupola of the old school. In addition, a wall in the lobby features the same “W’’ design that is on the cupola. The clock from the cupola was removed and installed at the top of a tower on the north side of the new school. There are also several old light fixtures, plaques, and other memorabilia spread around throughout the new building, Gurney said.

A distinctive feature is the 1938 Room, set up in the library as a tribute to the old school. To be used as classroom space, it features cabinetry and trim from an original section of the old high school. There are wall sconces that came from the exterior of the 1938 building, and hardwood flooring from the original Wellesley High School, which later became the Wellesley Country Club. The floors were saved when the country club was demolished in 2008.

“It’s a historical tribute to the existing building,’’ Gurney said.

Helen Robertson, a member of the town’s Historical Commission, said the room was included at the request of her board and the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The school was eligible to be placed on a historic register but was never added, Robertson said.

She said the commission wanted to save the building, but she’s pleased with what has been preserved and transferred to the new school.

“It’s a wonderful place to showcase things,’’ she said. “We want kids to appreciate history and understand why it matters.’’

Also in the library is a circular window that replicates similar windows in the old school.

Wong said one of her favorite design elements of the building is the location of the library in the center of the school.

“Now it’s in the heart of the academic arena,’’ she said.

Wong said the entire design tries to make the best use of space for existing programs, and allow for collaboration among departments.

One example, she said, is the placement of the band and chorus rooms next to the auditorium. In the existing school, band students walk down three flights of stairs to the stage.

“We tried to think about every student,’’ she said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at

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