Baltimore Design School
April 1, 2014

Learning by Design

A Baltimore machine shop-turned-school unlocks students' creative potential.

It’s 10:30 on a fall Friday morning in Baltimore. Sleet batters the faded brick facades of the Federal and Edwardian-style rowhouses in the city’s Greenmount West neighborhood. But across the street, a brightly lit classroom lined with multi-paned windows awaits Leah Brown’s ninth-grade art students.

The purple and green lettering on the whiteboard at the front of the room details tonight’s homework: a one-point-perspective drawing assignment. In the back, a pile of rumpled aprons shares counter space with color wheels and drawing utensils. The school’s electronic bell pulses, and Brown’s students filter in. Grouped around tables, they work on their projects, giggle over jokes, and swap weekend plans.

It seems like a normal day in any public high school. But the Baltimore Design School (BDS) is anything but normal.

BDS is one of roughly a half-dozen public schools nationwide that uses the discipline of design as a vehicle for secondary education, and the only one that combines middle school and high school programs. It’s the result of a $26.8 million adaptive reuse project that converted a bombed-out machine shop into a progressive center for education. It’s also the newest sign that a long-suffering city—known to many as the setting for The Wire, HBO’s hit TV drama about Baltimore’s institutional dysfunction and criminal underworld—can remake itself for the better without changing what it is.

Walking the halls with the school’s architect and secretary of its board of directors, Steve Ziger, it’s easy to see why the project has achieved such success.

Ziger, a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair, radiates energy as he touts the school’s impressive features. There are the four displays beyond the main entrance, where local companies such as sportswear giant Under Armour show off their design processes; the “fab lab” (short for fabrication lab) where students will eventually work with three-dimensional printing; and a library and media center stocked with hundreds of books and material samples donated by local design and architecture firms.

Baltimore Design School - Bathroom

Software giant Adobe donated its Creative Studio design programs for use in the classroom.

Suddenly, Ziger pauses, apologizing as he whips out his iPhone and bends to one knee. He’s taking a photo of a tiny flaw he’s noticed at the base of a door frame. “I walk into a room,” he says, “I go ‘Wow, that looks great,’ and then I go right to the thing that needs to be fixed.”

That passion and attention to detail is contagious.

“Every time I come into my classroom, just looking out the windows and the light coming in, it’s inspirational,” says Brown, one of the school’s art department chairs. “You just feel excited to teach, and the kids are excited and ready to learn.”

The brainchild of State Senator Catherine Pugh, who started dreaming of a fashion design institute for the city’s youth about seven years ago, BDS currently serves sixth through ninth graders, and continues to expand its architecture, fashion, and graphic design tracks toward 12th grade as its inaugural class of 2017 ages. As a magnet school, it includes students from 23 different ZIP codes throughout the city.

“The school is primarily designed to draw kids together who feel in their gut there’s something for them in the design world,” says Karen Carroll, a BDS board member and the dean at the Center for Art Education for the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). “I generally think of this as a school for kids who really like to make things, and who like to think about creative ideas.”

Baltimore Design School - Artifacts

The space also contains artifacts salvaged from the original building.

In early 2010, when Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) approved the plan for BDS, they asked for it to open the following fall. That left the board of directors—stacked with movers and shakers from the city’s design community and civic leadership—with less than nine months to find a principal, hire teachers, and retrofit a temporary facility. Despite the odds, the school opened with sixth and seventh graders that September. Next came the process of identifying and establishing a permanent home that would embody the school's ideals.

“As a design school, we wanted to be immersed in a design and arts community,” says Ziger. It was also important that the school be close to MICA, which acted as a fiscal sponsor to BDS’s early development and collaborates closely with the school on everything from curriculum to field trips and guest speakers.

At the time, Ziger and his firm were working independently with Baltimore’s Seawall Development to flesh out adaptive reuse options for a 1914 former machine shop in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. The state designated district, a mile and a half north of downtown and just blocks from MICA’s campus, covers about 100 acres and three neighborhoods, including Greenmount West.

One of the most diverse and vibrant areas of the city before the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 laid the neighborhood low, Station North had only recently begun to rebound. But with a buzz in the art community—there were requests for studio space coming from as far away as Seattle, not to mention a recent $9 million investment in a graduate studio arts center for MICA—the location was perfect.

Originally owned by the Crown Cork and Seal Company (inventors of the modern-day bottle cap), the machine shop had been converted into the Lebow Brothers clothing factory in the 1950s before a contract dispute shuttered it in 1985. When Ziger first toured the building, trees were growing through the floors and roof, coffee mugs rested on the tables where workers had left them more than 25 years earlier, and nearly every window had been smashed or boarded.

At 115,000 square feet, the building’s size was ideal for a school. That, along with its history as a creative space and the opportunity to turn a neighborhood eyesore into a place of renewal, made it even more attractive.

Baltimore Design School - Windows

Most of the building's windows were broken or boarded up when construction began.

Baltimore Design School - Interior

The building's interior was in dire need of stabilization, with warped and bowed concrete floors.

“Frankly, [it] could have been one of the most amazing apartment buildings in that area, just because of the structure,” says Jon Constable, a project manager for Seawall, which became the developer for BDS. “In the end we realized that the building was meant to be a school. It’s probably the best thing that could happen to that building.”

But with the school’s board in its infancy and the city unable to front the millions in cash it would take to transform a post-apocalyptic death trap into a sparkling new facility, the future of BDS was still anything but certain.

Fortunately, the creative minds on BDS’s board had another bright idea. They reached out to BCPS and Seawall Development, which had purchased the building only months earlier, to form an innovative public-private partnership to fund the school. Seawall worked with Ziger and his firm, Ziger/Snead Architects, to design the space, took out a mortgage for the full cost of development, and applied for $3 million worth of state historic tax credits ahead of the deal. The clever part came in the form of repayment to Seawall, which would recoup its investment by stretching BCPS’ payments over 30 years, in the form of an annual $1.7 million rental fee until the school assumes ownership in 2043.

Baltimore Design School - Natural Lighting

The entire building enjoys plenty of natural light from its expansive walls of windows.

“We showed them, basically, you don’t have to do these things for $250 to $300 a square foot,” Constable says. “We can build an awesome school for $160 a square foot.”

When construction and abatement began in November of 2011, street artists had covered the interior with graffiti, some of its floors had warped or bowed, and the structure was in serious need of stabilization. The situation was bad. The building was even used as a set on The Wire itself.

But the potential was there.

The Lebow building was one of the first of its kind, built was reinforced concrete floors supported only by concrete columns. The result was a completely open floor plan and large swaths of exterior windows for natural light—perfect for art studios and drafting rooms.

Ziger's plan preserved what history the building had to offer while letting its open, bare-bones interior serve as a canvas for the students to express their creativity.

Baltimore Design School - Ziger and Burns

Architect Steve Ziger, left, and school principal Nathan Burns.

"Baltimore is kind of gutsy and real," he says. "That kind of authenticity was something that we really wanted to communicate in the renovation of the building. To demonstrate that history is living, in a way, was key to stimulating the engagement of the students."

Ziger's team salvaged about a dozen old sewing machines and placed them throughout the school's media center as inspiration. They also preserved the building's rooftop water tower and painted it a vibrant orange as a beacon for drivers coming up I-83 out of downtown. The structure's support columns were left as-is, bearing their original numbers and letters in faded paint.

The architects also salvaged the building's freight elevator and placed the original cable spools outside the school's main entrance. Its cab was placed in the basement and converted into an exhibit dedicated to the building's history of design and fabrication.

Leaving items like the plumbing pipes, acoustic boards, and HVAC system exposed translated into significant cost savings. The strategy also allowed for the building itself to become part of the school's curriculum, in the sense that teachers can use elements such as the electrical wiring or structural systems as tools for explaining things such as human anatomy or geometry.

Baltimore Design School - Office

The school's old-fashioned lift was converted into a display of the site's history.

And while the design maximized the potential of the building's physical space, the innovative approach to financing has influenced the state of Maryland in the development of a 10-year plan with $1 billion in mixed funding to revamp Baltimore's public school facilities. In many ways, BDS is seen as a model for what can be accomplished with public-private partnerships and a focus on the renovation and reuse of existing spaces.

Of course, an inspired space is nothing without teachers and a curriculum to match. In that vein, the school continues to collaborate with the community and expand its course options. It presents monthly speakers and events, from a talk on furniture design to a fashion show put on by students. The school also plans to partner with local firms on internships and cooperative design projects as students progress.

"We want students to be able to take what they're learning in the classroom and make it concrete," says Mary-Ann Inkard, volunteer chair of BDS' fundraising committee. "Hopefully there can be some personal relationships between them and people in the design business ... so that the students can start to try to behave like professionals and reach for something higher than they might have had they not been in design school."

Until those relationships develop, though, the school is fostering a real sense of aspiration all its own. Observing the exposed columns around her, eighth grader MiKayla Young says, "They didn't decide to paint them over or anything. Just little things like that that they kept the same, like the floors. They could have easily painted over or added carpet or whatever, but they kept the cracks just to show us and remind us what a great opportunity we have."

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David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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