The first public high school in Southbridge, Massachusetts, is now housing for older adults, including some who walked the halls as students and others who taught there years ago.
Thanks to a recent repositioning project, the former Mary E. Wells School in Southbridge has become The Residences at The Wells School. The senior living community — owned by WinnDevelopment and Arch Communities and operated by WinnResidential — today includes 62 units built into the very classrooms where students once learned.
For many residents, moving into the community is like coming full circle, according to Scott Maenpaa, project manager with The Architectural Team, the firm that handled the community’s design.
“They’re starting the next phase of their life in a building where their life kind of began,” said Maenpaa, told Senior Housing News.
The community’s design, coupled with its creative use of former learning spaces, earned the Residence at The Wells School the top spot in the 2022 Senior Housing News Architecture and Design Awards’ Best Repositioning – Single Building category.
The Mary E. Wells School was built in two major phases in 1916 and 1923, with another addition in the 1980s. But in 2012, the school was vacated and sat dormant thereafter — that is, until 2020 when the site was slated to become a $25.3 million mixed-income community from project partners WinnDevelopment and The Architectural Team, which have worked together for more than fifty years.
So, the project team got to work. The design they landed on had all the trappings of a school — at least on the outside — with red brick construction and large windows with white trim.. The front of the building has sister entryways with a small flight of cement steps leading to the double doors. A flag pole splits the entryways on a manicured lawn.
“I’m very proud that when I drive by the building, it looks like a school again,” Maenpaa said. “It looks how it looked when it was originally constructed in the early 1900s.”
While inside the building is clearly a senior living community, the design team went through lengths to preserve the character and history of the old school. That has been a point of pride for the development team and a competitive advantage for the community.
While senior living companies sometimes complain adaptive reuse projects can be hard to design, the plan to reposition a former school had some advantages from the start.
For example, hallways in the school were bigger than is needed for a senior living community, according to Maenpaa. So, the team decided to leave banks of lockers from the 1980s throughout the building.
The school added a two-story gym in a renovation that took place in the 1980s. Though that was a challenge, the design team got creative and divided the former fitness space into two spaces vertically. They also added new windows to the top half.
Along with banks of original lockers, the project team also preserved the history of the former school by using reclaimed wood from the original gym in the design. Other repurposed materials included an old scoreboard and memorabilia wall art.
“We also created work pods,” Maenpaa said. “There are some residents that still work, so if they need a place to conduct their business, they have a private work area.”
The 62 units are distributed evenly throughout the three-story building, where there used to be classrooms. The project planners rehabilitated the lightwell and courtyard at the center of the school , which provided natural light to the former classroom spaces. Though the project team had to replace windows and doors, they did so with historically accurate, energy-efficient replicas.
“Classroom sizes and classroom distribution really lend themselves to unit design,” Maenpaa said.
The project broke ground in 2020 just weeks before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. That forced the project team to adjust their schedule, according to Maenpaa. When crews started demolition, the building was in relatively good condition.
Despite being unused for about eight years, the building was still air-tight. It had windows and a roof and was fairly undamaged by the elements.
Keith Construction – which has worked with Winn on many projects – was the contract construction team for this project, too.
One unique challenge is that “they could only have a maximum of 10 people inside the building,” Maenpaa said.
The creative solution was to have a nighttime cleaning crew enter the site at the end of the day after workers with Keith Construction had left.
“They were trying to figure out a way to keep on schedule,” Maenpaa said. “They had to pay a premium for night work.” Keith, Winn and The Architectural Team have collaborated for more than five decades and have a good working relationship.
Once the Covid-19–related workplace restrictions were lifted, the project team moved swiftly on construction.
The project came in about $1.5 million over its $25.3 million budget, largely as a result of costs stemming from the scheduling delays of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that additional spend also gave the project team more resources to work with in the final construction.
For example, they upgraded the flagpole in front of the building, as schools usually have. And, they added lighting.
Construction crews wrapped up work on the project in 2022. While the community is currently open with residents living in it, WinnResidential is planning an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for later this year.
The Peabody style of architecture can be seen in schools all across America, LeAnn Holec, of Thoma-Holec Design pointed out. “What a pleasure to see on transformed into senior housing,” said Holee, who served as a judge for the awards.
Of the 62 units, 55 are one-bedrooms and seven are two-bedroom. The 62 units are divided up into various forms of affordable housing for the Southbridge, Massachusetts community.
Eight units have Section 8 project-based vouchers that are earmarked for households earning either below 50% or 30% of the average median income. Forty-eight units are classified as Low Income Housing Tax Credit units for households earning at or below 60% of AMI. The other six units are market-rate.
Some of the community’s current residents include people who once attended the school as students. Some are even requesting units that were their former classrooms, according to Maenpaa.
Today, many of the community’s spaces are alive, just as they were a century ago. For example, the former gym now houses a yoga studio and fitness center, while the larger community has amenities including a lounge, a wellness suite, laundry, storage and a play area for kids.
“They can’t get enough of the tenant lounge,” Maenpaa said. “The people are actually kicked out of it at night.”
Since opening the community has leased up well, which Maenpaa believes is an indication of the robust demand for affordable senior housing.
“It’s very humbling when somebody is so excited to downsize from their house and move into an 800-square-foot apartment,” he said. “They couldn’t be happier in their life.”