St. Michael Special School - A Special Project for a Special School

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By Jeffrey Smith, AIA, NCARB

St. Michael Special School is a leader in Special Education, providing a Catholic environment where students with special educational needs are able to grow in faith and reach their full potential. Located in the historic Lower Garden District of New Orleans, St. Michael Special School has been educating students with special needs since 1965.


Before Restoration

After Restoration

The project included the restoration of the circa 1850’s Greek Revival Convent Building, providing new classrooms, a music room, a technology lab, and a transition academy for young adults. A new chapel addition was constructed to the rear of the historic building, providing a dignified, light-filled space for daily student mass. The adjacent school building received a new entrance and refreshed interior spaces to provide a more inviting entry to the campus.



The school was desperately in need of additional classrooms, a dignified worship space, a more cohesive sense of place, and a better connection to the surrounding community. Therefore, the project brief required the following:

The design team used the goals and objectives and historic data to develop a design solution. Using the knowledge of other historic buildings in New Orleans from similar timeframes helped the team develop the key design concept. The big idea was to add the chapel space to the rear of the existing building in the form of a service structure that once allowed for kitchens, bathrooms, and servants’ quarters. The addition allowed for all coderequired improvements to occur so the interior spaces of the historic building could be renovated to the original size and detailing while being repurposed as classrooms. As many architectural details as possible were recreated and approved by the State Historic Preservation Office to receive the historic tax credits.

1. The restoration of the only truly historic building on campus, a former Greek Revival residence called the “Convent.” The interior of the Convent would be renovated and adapted to create unique teaching spaces, including a music classroom, a technology laboratory, and a transition academy for young adults. 2. The addition of a dedicated student chapel for the weekly celebration of mass and other school gatherings. 3. The renovation of the front of the 1960’s era school administration building to provide a more inviting and clearly defined entrance to the campus. In response to the goals and objectives, the design team analyzed the campus, existing structures, and building space requirements. This analysis included detailed research into the Convent’s history. After rigorous perusal of historic archives in New Orleans, an accurate image of the Circa 1850’s design was established.

The chapel addition maintained the building form and respect of history; however, the design added modern detailing. Clerestory windows with louver-type solar slat screens, exposed roof trusses, and a fritted glass wall behind the sanctuary are some of the contemporary features. The stark white interior finishes were offset with natural white oak pews and altar furniture. St. Michael’s cloud was the theme of the interior design of the chapel.

This historic research allowed concept project designs to be submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office of Louisiana to receive certification for historic preservation tax credits. An Archdiocese of New Orleans-owned facility, the St. Michael Special School buildings are tax-exempt, but the tax credits were being sold to investors, and the proceeds applied to the project’s construction cost.

Dating to the late 1840s, the Convent building was originally constructed as an American-style double townhouse and converted to a convent sometime in the 1880s. The building suffered numerous unfortunate renovations over the years, and much of the historic fabric was lost, including most of the double gallery along the front. One of the original entrance halls remained and was restored to its original elegance. The heart pine floors were repaired and refinished. Massive Greek Key door casings and baseboard were uncovered and repaired. A section of elaborate plaster crown molding was discovered behind a dropped acoustical ceiling and replicated in all public spaces on the ground floor. The remaining interior spaces have been adapted for use as modern classrooms but retain their gracious proportions and historic detailing.

CONSTRUCTION Voelkel McWilliams Construction built the project as General Contractor with much care and attention to detail. Restoration of the building required careful deconstruction of insensitive additions and extensive structural reinforcement. The masonry foundation had failed, requiring that the entire building be temporarily jacked up on wooden supports while a new foundation was constructed below. The unique historic wood framing details were exposed and analyzed to determine the construction technique of the 1850s. The lumber was full dimensioned rough sawn material, balloon framing with let-in diagonal bracing. New wood siding was installed to match the existing damaged wood, and new wood windows matching the historic windows were also added. Historic photographs and renderings were used to design the reconstructed gallery across the front façade. The ornate wood detailing was matched exactly to the original design. ADA ramps were added to the new chapel addition, creating separate public and student entrances into the chapel. A metal roof was used on the chapel and shingles on the original structure to differentiate the old from the new.

The new chapel, the restoration of the Convent Building, and the redesigned school entrance have established a new prominence for the school. Previously fenced off and protected from its onceblighted surroundings, the school is now visually and physically connected to its community, proudly proclaiming its presence as an anchor of this vibrant Lower Garden District neighborhood. ■

Jeffrey Smith is the Founder and Design Principal at Holly & Smith Architects. Jeffrey has had career-long involvement, both professionally and as a community leader, with the revitalization of historic structures. He served as the Design Director on the St. Michael Special School Renovation and Addition. Jeffrey used extensive knowledge of historic preservation and adaptive reuse to gather data on the 1850’s Convent structure. He directed the design of the restoration and the chapel addition to meet US Park Service Historic Tax Credit Guide criteria.

Images © 2019 Neil Alexander

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