Summers-Knoll School: Fresh Spirit In An Old Space
"It's kind of grown like a lobster," Theresa Angelini says of the building at 2203 Platt Road. Over decades of use as an office building, the structure has grown into a small network of hallways, annexes, and additions, radiating outwards from the original construction. And last year Angelini, of Angelini Architects
, had the unusual task of transforming a well-worn space into the new home of Summers-Knoll School
. The progressive private school was set to make the move from a less spacious location just a short distance west, on Manchester Road.
But Angelini says it was difficult at first to envision a school on the site. Originally built in the ‘40s as a dairy, the structure had served many years as the head offices for organ and tissue recovery program Gift of Life
"It was completely different," Angelini says. "It was very dark, lots of carpet, with window shades covering everything. It had the feeling of offices that had been lived in for a very long time."
Gift of Life spokesperson Tim Makinen says the building had served its purpose well as the program's business headquarters and laboratory before the organization moved out in 2008. "It was a little bit of a hodgepodge, although I say that in the best possible regard," he says. "It was a very compartmentalized building. But it was home to so many people for so long."
But to Summers-Knoll board member Fran Loosen, the site looked just right from square one. "I literally pulled in and had my face pressed to the window," Loosen says. "And I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is amazing. This is the building we've been looking for.' There was so much possibility." Angelini, too, says there was potential; the difficulty was getting it there. "It had that charm from the outside," she says. "But getting the space that they needed - that was a challenge."
Getting more space, and using it well, was a key motivating factor behind the school's decision to move in the first place. After 15 years in the Manchester location, Summers-Knoll had begun to outgrow it.
"We found a lot of parents were really interested in Summers-Knoll, but they were kind of wary of a school that only had a capacity of 40 children," Loosen says. "It seemed a little too small to them." The new space would more than triple the school's student capacity, also adding 6th through 8th grades to Summers-Knoll's kindergarten through 5th grade classes.
Although Angelini hadn't designed a school before, she says her previous experience working on university residence halls gave her useful perspective on the project. "It was kind of like a living-learning space," she says. "It's kind of about these centers, these neighbor-nodes, that they can share."
That concept is most notably realized in the creation of classroom "front porches," common areas just outside the classrooms that classes can use for projects, group activities, or quiet relaxation.
"The classrooms are intentionally a bit small to sort of get people out and using the common area," Angelini says. Also incorporated among the "neighbor-nodes" are administrative offices, intentionally scattered throughout the school to maximize accessibility instead of clustering them in a single area.
Other nooks and crannies of the branching floor plan lent themselves well to the school's community-minded design. Small patches of outdoor space in between the various annexes became courtyards and gardens for playground use and other outdoor activities. Gift of Life's former laboratory easily became the school's new science lab, thanks to some preexisting plumbing work. Near the front entrance, Angelini and her team peeled back layers of construction to raise an eight-foot office ceiling to an impressive fourteen-foot height in the school's cavernous new music room. And Gift of Life's old lunchroom became a full-fledged kitchen, intended both for school lunchtimes and for parents to relax with a cup of coffee after dropping off the kids.
"It's like a rabbit warren in a lot of places," Loosen says. "There were some hidden gems in there that we didn't really realize."
The design also aimed for what Loosen describes as "green principles." The renovation incorporated recycled carpet, low-flow toilets, and water-limiting fixtures. Skylights were added to maximize sunlight and reduce electrical use. In fact, upon walking into the freshly renovated building, it's almost difficult to believe that the old office building Angelini and Makinen describe ever existed. Vinyl floors have largely replaced carpet and concrete. Bright colors accent, but don't dominate, the doorways and walls. Abundant natural light from skylights and windows renders indoor lighting almost unnecessary on a sunny day. Loosen says that seeing the transformed space for the first time was a moving experience for her. "I remember walking in there after they renovated and I had tears in my eyes," she says.
The new location officially opened in June and is currently in use for summer camp programs. The school is also preparing to realize a project dubbed the Summers-Knoll Learning Commons, which would open the building to a variety of public uses.
"We're very community learning-based," Loosen says. "The kids are at the U-M museum and on field trips all the time. So we kind of flipped it. We created a kind of community hub where kids from diverse economic communities can access our resources. It becomes a resource for the broader community."
Summers-Knoll is already renting out space to the Wild Swan Theater, and Loosen says the building will also be made available to various community meetings, classes, and events.
And as a new school year approaches, the renovation has sparked hearty new interest in the school. "Enrollment is doing so well," Loosen says. "It's unbelievable. I think it's going to be hard to get a spot in a year." The new location will reach capacity at 125-130 students, with 14-15 kids per class, and Loosen says that's where expansion stops for the school.
"We don't want to get any bigger than that," she says. "We want to keep that ‘small-school' kind of thing." For Summers-Knoll, it seems that lobster-like building has turned out to be the perfect place to stay.
Full disclosure: Issue Media Group co-founder Paul Schutt is a board member of Summers-Knoll, with a child in attendance.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe