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Colonial Barn

Staying In Character

Traditional Building, Dec. 2005

For nearly 50 years, the students of Concord Academy, an independent preparatory school in Concord, MA, gathered in the intimate confines of the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel for morning exercises. It was the heart of campus, where the school's most venerated tradition - the chapel talk, in which seniors are given the opportunity to tell their stories - was carried on. But as enrollment grew through the years - from about 200 in the 1950s to around 350 today - accommodating the entire student body within the chapel became an increasingly difficult endeavor.

With the school's population well beyond the chapel's 270-seat capacity, Concord Academy's Board of Trustees, upon the completion of a strategic planning process in 2002, placed the chapel's expansion and renovation high on its list of priorities. According to Don Kingman, Concord Academy's director of operations, the project was a long time in coming. "The chapel had been too small for the entire school community for quite some time," he says. "We wanted to increase the seating capacity as well as bring the building up to contemporary safety codes. Tearing it down and building a new structure was never an option, given the history of the chapel. "

Indeed, the story of the chapel is legendary in the Concord Academy community. In 1954, then headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall, envisioning both a meeting place for the entire school and a sanctuary or quiet contemplation on its busy campus, purchased a small, neglected early 19th century Baptist church in rural New Hampshire for $1,500. Led by Hall, it was dismantled by a small group of faculty, students and friends in the summer of 1956 (the five roof trusses and granite foundation stones were handled by a local crane service), loaded onto a flatbed truck, transported the approximately 80 miles to Concord and rebuilt on the school's campus. It was ready for morning exercises by May of 1957; a steeple was added in 1961. It has been an integral part of the Concord Academy experience ever since.

So, when Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (SBRA), the Boston, MA, firm that also designed the school's Mathematics and Arts Center (1992), was hired in December of 2003 to design the expansion and renovation of the chapel, it faced a daunting task: double the size of the school's most cherished buildings without changing its character. "The building was their physical and spiritual center," explains William Barry, AIA, project manager. "In that sense, it was a delicate icon. This is a community that really loves this building - they were committed to not losing its elegance and simplicity. "

Given the potentially transformative nature of such an expansion, Barry emphasizes that it was important for people to see the project in a larger context. "The first thing you have to realize is that change is necessary and change can be good - but it is still something people are scared of," he says. "To me, this is part of the richness of the project. It fits into the long-term evolution of the chapel - a chapel that's really about change, starting with it having been moved from New Hampshire. The steeple was a very whimsical gesture - it's not your typical or traditional steeple. It was a wonderful gesture, creating a new image for the building, and laying the groundwork for us adding onto the back. It became understood that this project was the next stage in its history. "

Prior to the expansion, the chapel was, at 1,970 sq. ft. , a small, simple, rectangular structure oriented toward the south. After exploring several options, SBRA and Concord Academy opted for a 1,880 sq. ft. addition to its northern end. The plan called for the addition to be slightly wider than the original structure; the new north-facing facade would be curvilinear - seen from above, think of it as the cap of a mushroom to the original structure's stem - to mitigate the appearance of a massive addition to the existing building. It would include a porch opening to the north, a generous amount of glass and would be topped with a hipped roof.

"To accomplish doubling its size without compromising its character," says Barry, "you work with both the exterior and the interior. On the outside, the concern was with the change in massing this addition would create. With the hipped roof, you knock off the corners. Perceived from the front, and even from the sides, the result isn't overpowering or overbearing. The design plays down what could have been a huge mass. The porch also reduces the building and welcomes the students in. "

From the existing entrance vestibule to the existing main chapel area to the new addition, the chapel now expands in scale from the south to the north, reflecting its surroundings. "The addition amplifies the relationship between the space and the Sudbury River beyond," says Barry. "There is a transition in scale between the space of the front of the chapel and the space of the rear. To the north, the building widens, and, with a lot more glass, opens up to the greater expanse of the field leading to the river. On the inside, the intimacy between speaker and audience was crucial. What this design does is move more people closer to the speaker.

"Here the project was about preserving the place. You're dealing with creating quality of space, and the impression of quality of space. Today, the space is very different, but the impression is very much the same. This was done by maintaining the quality of the craftsmanship, sticking with contemporary materials and focusing on objects of memory - people can go and sit and have those same experiences they had in the old chapel. "

Led by the Bedford, MA-based C.E. Floyd Company, the construction phase got underway in early June of 2004 with the removal of the existing pews. In what Barry describes as a virtually impossible timetable, the project was to be completed over the summer recess. "Given the time frame, we were making decisions in a non-standard mode," he says. "All members of the project team - the owner, architect and builder - had to be decisive and always move forward. Many clients would have wavered, would have said, you're moving too fast,' but they were committed to this. Don Kingman kept us all on track. "

By mid-June, the exterior siding had been removed and the north wall had been demolished in preparation for the expansion. In mid-July, Nashua, NH-based Architectural Interior Products (AIP) began fabricating the 40 new pews that were to be added. Since the success of the project hinged on seamlessly blending the addition with the existing structure, matching new and existing materials was of utmost importance. "We were responsible for the research and the primary lead for matching the new materials with the old," says Carl Maxner, AIP's president. "This included the fabrication of trim, windows, flooring, and pews from timber that had the same characteristics as the original wood. Finishes were developed using a multi-step process that utilized traditional amber shellac with a wax-top coating. "All benches were hand-distressed to match the originals. Historically correct restoration glass was used in sash frames. "

The wood that AIP used in fabricating the chapel's interior elements was supplied by Tuneless Timber, of Ashland, WI. The company specializes in the recovery of virgin-growth timber that had been submerged in lumber mill holding ponds while waiting to be processed in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this case, Ponderosa pine was used for the new pews, floors, windows, casings and trim, matching the character, color and density of the existing wood.

By mid-August, the walls and roof of the addition had been framed. To match the timber-frame structure of the addition to that of the existing structure, Bolton, MA-based Colonial Barn Restoration utilized posts and beams recycled from a barn in Canada. The plasterwork - applied by one craftsman to ensure a consistent pattern and texture throughout - was completed in mid-September. By that time, new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems had been installed.

"Sprinklers did not exist in the building," says Barry. "We used raw copper pipe - an exposed system because of the lack of available space. A lot of effort went into minimizing the size of it; the system had to be tightly engineered to minimize the pipe size.

"Upgrading the heating system was a necessity, but there was zero space to integrate the system. We couldn't put it on the end of the addition because it opens to the river. We couldn't touch the front. So we ended up using two furnaces in new intervention closet space - it was done to have the least impact possible. "

By early October, the new wood flooring had been installed and finished. Soon after, the new and refurbished pews were installed. On October 12, 2004, the entire Concord Academy community gathered in the expanded Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel for the first time.

One concern that Barry had in particular was the sound quality of the expanded space. "The building had always been prized for its acoustics," he says. "We were nervous because it had always been considered acoustically perfect - we brought in an acoustic consultant, Cavanaugh and Tocci (Sudbury, MA), to advise us, and we've heard great things about the acoustic quality of the new space. "

Today, the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel once again promotes the sense of community its namesake envisioned when she brought it to Concord Academy back in 1956.

"It (the design) did take some convincing," says Kingman, "but everyone has been won over. The response has been tremendous. In projects like this, the response is usually mixed, but in this case, it's been all positive. "

"The most gratifying compliment we get," says Barry, "is when people who spent time in the old chapel come in and tell us they enjoy the newly renovated chapel as much as the place they remember and cherish. "

Will Holloway

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