Best Repositioning of 2018: From Endangered High School to Celebrated Senior Housing

Yesterday’s buildings can be tomorrow’s senior housing, in the right hands.

As land, labor and materials costs continue to rise, senior housing developers and operators across the country are looking for opportunities to repurpose vacant, obsolete buildings into senior living communities. This allows for speed to market while meeting future demand from seniors transitioning into independent living, assisted living and memory care.

One example of this trend is Knoxville High, a 99,814 square-foot, 80-unit independent living community in Knoxville, Tennessee. The community is the 2018 Senior Housing News Architectural and Design Award winner in the renovation/repositioning category, and is notable for breathing new life into an endangered local landmark.

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The concept

Originally built in 1910, Knoxville High was home to over 2,300 students at its World War II peak. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, James Agee, is the school’s most famous alum. The building was designed in classic revival style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Emory Place Historic District.

Independent living, adaptive reuse Courtesy of Eli Johnson Photography
Knoxville High was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

As Knoxville’s population grew, however, the school district built more schools to accommodate the influx of students, rendering Knoxville High obsolete. The school graduated its last class in 1951. The building would later be used for adult education classes, and housed the school district’s administrative offices before falling into disrepair and landing on local preservation group Knox Heritage’s 2010 “Fragile 15” list over concerns about its ongoing maintenance costs.

The start of Knoxville High’s transformation into senior housing started in 2015, when Dover Development bought the building from Knox County for $500,000 and announced plans to repurpose the building into senior housing. Managing Director Rick Dover is an adaptive reuse specialist with a particular affinity for restoring and preserving historic buildings into senior housing.

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Dover and Knoxville High’s operating partner, Senior Solutions Management Group, reached out to Knoxville-based firm DKLEVY Architecture & Design to create the redevelopment plan, DKLEVY Lead Interior Designer Whitney Scott told Senior Housing News. The team eventually landed upon the concept of blending elements of hospitality into a residential project.

“This was our first independent living project, which was exciting for us as designers” Scott said. “We went for a more ritzy, cool place to live.”

Knoxville High’s former life as a school made it a viable candidate for repositioning as senior housing. The classrooms would be renovated into spacious apartments. The hallways, where hundreds of students roamed decades earlier, were of an ideal width to accommodate residents who needed wheelchair or motorized scooter assistance. The building’s large windows would allow ample natural light to pour inside the living and common areas.

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Restoration played a large role in the project, Scott said. The exteriors were restored to their original classic revival glory, the exposed brick preserved. Inside, design touches such as wood doors and handrails, and the original tin ceiling, were restored. Modern design elements such as LED lighting and new carpeting were installed. Trophy cases highlighting the building’s past were installed throughout the building including historic photos, school memorabilia and a World War II memorial.

Independent living, adaptive reuse Courtesy of Eli Johnson Photography
Knoxville High’s courtyard, once home to students, now includes a skylight which diffuses daylight.

Arguably the centerpiece of Knoxville High is a fully restored courtyard. During its past life, this served as a gathering place for students. Dover and DKLEVY sealed the courtyard from the elements with polyresin panels which also allow diffused sunlight to enter.

“It feels like a skylight, without it being framed by windows,” Scott said.

The construction

All repositioning projects start with a good shell. Knoxville High’s exterior held up over the decades. The interior, however, was another matter, Scott said.

There was damage from the elements, squatters and dead animals. The building itself was reused so much after it ceased being a school, the original blueprints made little sense.

“It was completely in disarray,” she said.

The development team made the decision to completely gut the interior and start from scratch.

independent living, adaptive reuse Courtesy of Dover Development and DKLEVY (left), Eli Johnson Photography (right)
A before-and-after look at one of Knoxville High’s classrooms, and how those rooms were repurposed into living space.

Stripped to the bones, the team focused on transforming the classrooms into apartments, as well as designing the common spaces and amenities. Having a blank canvas allowed DKLEVY to experiment with colors, finishes and types of furniture, striking a balance between function and fashion. The team brought in marbleized textures and geodes, to evoke a sense of glitz and glamour.

“We drew inspiration from the Roaring 20s,” Scott said.

The construction team also replaced the building’s plant and added elevators so residents can move between floors.

Most of the development team’s decisions, particularly the exposed brick in the courtyard, had to be presented to the Emory Place Historic District historic society and Knox County Council, to show that the team was preserving as many aspects of the building’s past as possible.

“We wanted to remind people that this was once a school, especially residents who attended Knoxville High,” Scott said.

The completion

Knoxville High has been praised since its opening and is fully occupied.

The community earned kudos for paying homage to the building’s history. And it all started with the shell, according to THW Design Principal and Executive Director Eric Krull, an SHN Architecture and Design Awards judge.

The building had built-in advantages that one does not see in modern senior housing construction. Krull noted Knoxville High’s wide corridors as an immediate advantage for the design team.

Independent Living, adaptive reuse Courtesy of Eli Johnson Photography
Knoxville High’s wide corridors lent themselves perfectly for repurposing into senior housing.

“Schools have always had this feature, because of the loads of students that need to move about,” he said. “It’s perfect for use as senior housing because, as residents age in place, they can navigate in wheelchairs and scooters. They got something we can’t build today.”

AG Architecture Principal John Cronin, another SHN Awards judge, was struck by the before and after photos of the building, and was impressed by the extent of preservation.

“A lot of the brick was decaying due to water damage,” he said.

Krull was equally impressed by the nods to Knoxville High’s past, noting the sentimental value to future residents can translate to a balance sheet.

“Chances are an 80-year-old resident there has a history to the building,” he said. “There is still a bit of a legacy and emotional connectivity to the building that is important. The operator can market it and use it to leverage position in marketplace.”

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