Miami High restored as resplendent castle of learning

It took four years and $55 million, but crenellated, tower-crowned and Gothic-arched Miami Senior High is once again what it was on its inauguration 85 years ago: Simply resplendent, the Vizcaya of South Florida public schools.

Only this veritable Alhambra of learning is bigger and better than ever. The painstakingly thorough renovation and expansion, which its architects say might be the most ambitious construction job ever undertaken by Miami-Dade County schools, mean the grand old school has three simpatico new wings and the latest in technology throughout.

And it’s got its unmistakeable architectural swagger back. When Miami High is formally re-dedicated on Friday evening, alumns and others who have not set foot in the 1928 building for a long time are in for a slack-jaw stunner.

Gone are the dreadful dropped ceilings, patchwork renovations and ill-conceived additions that for years marred its Mediterranean Revival glory and hid soaring ceilings, intricate cast-stone arches and expansive windows from generations of students and teachers.

Back for the first time in five decades are the 14-foot-tall arched windows and the dramatic steel trusses beneath the high cathedral ceiling in the old library, now a media center equipped with 60 computer work stations and 40 laptops and e-tablet readers. Back are the high ceilings and decorative cast-stone vent screens in the halls, where the original terra-cotta floor tiles, polished to a shine, preserve the smooth wear of more than 80 years.

And back to its original gleaming splendor is the vast auditorium with its four massive chandeliers and Byzantine windows fit for a castle in Spain.

In the new band room, on the second floor of the old west wing, the ceiling was opened up to reveal long-concealed riveted steel supports and a band of high-up windows through which daylight, modulated by electrically controlled shades, flows down. The room also boasts a 21st Century twist: wireless surround sound.

“This is the best place to come to work every day,” said an ecstatic Juan Turros, director of the school’s legendary band and a Miami High alum, class of 1981. “With these exposed beams and those windows, it’s beautiful. Nobody knew all of this existed. Generations of people are clueless about it.”

Miami was barely a city but booming rapidly when it commissioned the firm of Kiehnel and Elliott, which had introduced the Spanish Mediterranean style to South Florida, to design a grand new home — the fourth, and by far the most impressive — for its original secondary school, in what was then the middle of a pine forest. In subsequent years the school became a civic landmark as the city grew to surround the 15-acre campus.

Richard Kiehnel, a German-born architect who had studied in Paris before establishing a firm in Pittsburgh, came to Coconut Grove to design El Jardin, Miami’s earliest known Mediterranean home, for steel magnate John Bindley in 1917. He went on to design the Coral Gables Congregational Church, the Coconut Grove Playhouse building and Coral Gables Elementary. All, like Miami High, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

For Miami High, Kiehnel borrowed Moorish and Byzantine details from the pre-Renaissance Mediterranean and gave the school an impressive entrance, off Flagler Street, “of three arched portals befitting a Gothic cathedral,” says the American Institute of Architects Miami Architecture guide.

In a fitting historical circle, the Miami High project architect for Zyscovich Architects, Thorn Grafton, is the grandson of pioneering Miami Beach architect Russell Pancoast, a Kiehnel contemporary who worked for him for about a year.

“My grandfather used to talk about Kiehnel,” Grafton said. “He described him as a German architect from Pittsburgh doing Spanish architecture in Miami.”

The result of this confluence of influences, said Victor Alonso, director of design for Miami-Dade public schools, is a masterful, signature building that reflects the civic importance of its educational mission — and one that could never be replicated today.

The renovation and expansion were once budgeted for more than $100 million, but revenue shortfalls after the economic meltdown forced the school system to scale back.

The recession also worked to the project’s advantage, however, because costs also plummeted. Project managers planned an $80 million renovation, but were able to do even more than that version contemplated for just under $55 million, Grafton and Alonso said.

One important goal: to bring the school into compliance with new mandated class-size limits. Though built for 1,800 students, Miami High had gone well over capacity with about 3,000 students, they said. The expansion added 1,000 student stations to meet current state standards.

But keeping the school open and running for the duration meant a complex staging: First came two new classroom wings, emulating but subservient to the original building, that now flank the old entry plaza off Flagler Street, which has been turned into a park lined with royal palms. At the rear of the building, a slightly curving, new three-story building in a subdued modern style, attached to the original breezeways, hugs the athletic fields.

The old gym, known to generations of Stingarees as the Asylum for its madhouse atmosphere during basketball games, also was refurbished — and, to the chagrin of some alums who considered its sweltering air a competitive advantage, it was air-conditioned for the first time to comply with state regulations.

Once the new wings were done, the original four-story building was shut down by portions and stripped to the rafters. Zyscovich’s architects and the general contractor, MCM, sweated every detail of the restoration.

They ripped out the old air-conditioning system, which had required the dropped ceilings, sealed-off windows and punched through decorative screening, and figured out how to channel the new, energy-efficient system through the building while preserving much of the hallways’ height. They also demolished several unsympathetic additions, including an administrative office expansion that blocked a portion of one of the school’s three enclosed courtyards.

They reopened the covered, second-story arcade that runs along the media center, and which had been closed off during a previous library expansion. To do so, they had to meticulously reproduce the cast stone balustrades, and elevate them several inches on blocks to meet modern safety codes.

They persuaded the fire marshal, who wanted the distinctive, airy interior stairways enclosed, to allow them to be open, as they were originally. They found a company that could replicate the old steel-framed windows on the west wing in aluminum.

To put back the 14-foot windows in the old library while meeting hurricane codes, they had to go in and reinforce the walls, framing the openings with steel.

Wherever they could, they saved what was already there, from door hinges to light fixtures and floor tiles. Salvageable, original pine floorboards were refinished and repurposed for the media center, where their imperfections hint at the building’s long history.

They restored the school’s exterior iron lamps, and found a crafstman in South Florida who could reproduce those too corroded to save. The castle-like front doors are the originals, refinished to a glow. The 1,500-pound metal chandeliers in the auditorium, which got new seats and a state-of-the-art audiovisual system, were cleaned up and fitted with LEDs.

So meticulous were the designers and contractors that they even reproduced parts of Gothic letters on a cast-stone courtyard portal that was damaged when the office addition ceiling was put right through the middle of it.

It was, said Alonso, a matter of pride — even though he went to rival Gables High.

“Everyone who worked on this project realized its significance and went the extra mile to get everything right,’’ he said. “It’s one of those projects that, when you look back, is the highlight of your career.”