SALT LAKE CITY — Jared Wright is aware of the “passion” and “worry” surrounding West High School’s future.
The now-century-old West High School building holds a special place in Wright’s heart because he attended there and later secured a position as a teacher. In 2020, he was appointed the school’s principal, and his perception of the structure gradually shifted.
As he stood on the stage of the school auditorium on Wednesday night, he said, “I love this school like an old friend—this building. (But) coming in as a principal a few years ago, (my) perspective changed, as far as looking at the functionality of the high school, as it relates to serving the needs of our 21st-century students.
Salt Lake City School District authorities are starting an architecture feasibility study to “reimagine” the West High campus, which may entail a total reconstruction of the school, in response to growing difficulties with the structure, which was finished 100 years ago this summer. The 66-year-old Highland High School, which may likely be reconstructed in the future, is also undergoing similar research.
The future of either building is still unknown. According to district officials, the feasibility studies will ultimately identify everything, including the necessary improvements for each school and the approximate cost of any renovations.
“We don’t have a plan right now. We have a completely blank piece of paper and we’re just starting from scratch,” asked Paul Schulte, The Salt Lake City School District’s executive director of auxiliary services stated that giving West High students the “greatest instructional space possible” will come first and that any decision made after that will preserve the school’s “strong and revered tradition.”
The report should be finished in the winter, according to Whitney Ward, a principal at VCBO Architecture, the company the school system contracted to undertake the West High study. She stated that “a tonne of information” would be incorporated, including community feedback from students and alumni.
For the Highland High School study, the district hired Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects. The project’s vice president, Philip Wentworth, stated that his team will have the same timeframe and that the feasibility assessment will also determine how any project is done, including the potential for future construction to take place during school hours.
Once the investigations are finished, they will determine how much money the district should ask for in the form of a bond to pay for any proposed projects, which Salt Lake City citizens will then vote on. According to current plans, the district will have a bond proposal ready the following year in time to be put on the ballot for 2023.
“This is going to be a long journey,” asked Highland principal Jeremy Chatterton, during an event on Thursday. “This is simply the first step.”
Juggling Heritage And New Requirements
Because it was established in 1890 and is the state’s first high school, West High School in Utah has a long history. But it wasn’t housed in the current school’s building. The Class of 1919 supported a bond initiative to build the structure that many today connect with West High School after attending the school for over three decades at another location.
Nevertheless, since 1959, eight new buildings have been added, which has contributed to the increase in the student body’s size. The final of those was accomplished through two projects in 2011. According to Deseret News, the structure had a multimillion-dollar seismic retrofit in the 1990s.
“The Salt Lake City School District has done a ton of stuff over the years to maintain the campus and to keep it meeting those students’ needs,” asked Alex Booth, other principal at VCBO Architecture. “I mean no other school in the valley has lasted 100 years.”
Even with such efforts, he and other firm members discussed the developing “specific issues” and shortcomings of the school related to the original structure and its extensions. For instance, since each expansion has a unique architectural style, they must all be handled differently.
Additionally, there are problems with the size of the classrooms and hallways as well as some of the rooms’ accessibility. Mechanical system problems make running the school both expensive and challenging. According to Brian Peterson, a separate principal at VCBO Architecture, the school has 13 different entryways, and none of them is very secure.
“Building a high school is really difficult to keep it locked and safe but one of our jobs, as your architect, is to design a building that feels open and inviting but also gives us an environment where we can close it down quickly,” he said. “Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have that at West.”
According to Yandary Chatwin, the spokeswoman for the school district, Highland High School has some of the same problems, particularly in terms of the student body. The only free venue for meetings, according to her, is the principal’s office. Due to the increase in population, all of the original conference meeting rooms had to be converted into classrooms.
“There’s literally no more room at Highland High School,” she said, of the building that opened in 1956. “They’ve gotten creative with the space they’ve got and it’s time to make sure that we’re providing the best experience for these kids because they deserve it.”
It’s difficult to let go, though, given the rich histories of both institutions. Some alumni and history organizations were interested in the feasibility studies because they hoped there would be a solution that could maintain as much of the school’s heritage as possible while still giving kids a chance to achieve.
The executive director of Preservation Utah, David Amott, came to the meeting on Wednesday to observe. Afterward, he expressed his gratitude to the district and architectural firm for recognizing West High’s significance in the community and said that he “understands and sympathizes” with the school’s current difficulties. However, he also didn’t think the presentation provided much insight into all the options for remodeling the structure to make it more suited to students’ needs.
“You can have an old building and still have something that works in 2022 or beyond,” he asked, noting many old buildings even in Salt Lake City that have been remodeled for tech startups. “What I heard was really a dichotomy, a black-and-white, hot-and-cold type of argument. … You can have a building that is as historic and full of heritage as West High and still trains people for something other than working in a factory in the sort that they presented.”
Both schools are not included on the National Register of Historic Places, which can provide tax credits for renovations of any structure 50 years old or older if they meet certain criteria related to historical significance. Schulte claimed that, at least with regard to West High, he is “quite confident” that maintaining the building would be “substantially” more expensive than replacing it, though he added that the feasibility will determine whether or not this is the case.
According to Ward, the study’s estimations would take into account “life-cycle costs,” which take into account the price when a building’s components begin to break down in addition to examining the price to tear down and rebuild the school. Highland High is anticipated to follow a similar procedure.
Amott expressed hope that both structures could be “adaptively repurposed” in the future rather than being demolished due to their significance to Salt Lake City. Wednesday, Ward admitted that the West High proposal is distinctive because of its extensive history, calling it “not your standard high school.”
“There are generations of students and alumni who (view) West High as an important piece of their personal life and experiences,” she said. “We also check it’s a very strong part of the Salt Lake City community, so we want to make sure we’re engaging with not only the current students but also future students … and alumni networks.”
Highland is comparable, Schulte continues.
The Subsequent Actions
Both parties’ feelings may ultimately turn out to be constructive. The community’s input, which is what the district wants out of the feasibility study process, is what Chatwin said she thinks it has the power to drive. She explained that the goal of the current procedure is to hear from as many people as possible in order to guarantee that any project reflects the needs of both the community and the present and future students.
“There’s a lot of tradition and it means a lot in this community but I know something else that means a lot to the community is the educational experience of our students,” she told.
People can engage in the process in the interim by responding to the district’s online surveys. Before the following steps are disclosed, the studies are anticipated to be finished by the end of February.
There is no concrete schedule for when construction could start at either school, according to Chatwin, because more research must be done to determine the cost estimate, which will decide how much money will need to be raised through bonds. Before any project is completed, residents must also accept any bond measure that the district puts on the ballot for voters in 2023.
“We’re on a path together. Right now, we’re gathering,” Wentworth said. “We want to listen from you. We want to make sure that we understand what it is that needs be in the school. We’ll be working on concepts pretty quickly here with the time we have.”