EXCLUSIVE: Get a first look at Austin Community College's newly renovated Rio Grande campus
Be prepared to be gobsmacked.
The historic Rio Grande campus of Austin Community College — once Austin High School and, before that, Allan Junior High School — has been thoroughly transformed with an eye to the future of learning in this city.
More than a century of gritty wear and tear, as well as almost geologic layers left behind from past makeovers and expansions, have given way to open, modern classrooms, science labs and meeting spaces that swim with light and are designed for streamlined comfort.
As part of a $49 million project, two open-air courtyards, which once allowed daylight into the interiors but baked in hot weather, have been covered with high-tech tenting from Germany, making them comfortable year-round. The former auditorium has been turned into a tall-ceilinged training center and software factory for Army Futures Command. What not long ago was a cramped cafeteria is now an "ACCelerator," a high-tech learning center laid out for mentoring, like the popular version already in place at ACC Highland.
Outside, the signature Elgin-Butler golden-yellow bricks have not looked this sharp and bright since the core of the campus opened in 1916. Crews have burnished and sharpened the mortaring and the manufactured stone decor as well. (Who knew all that stone decor was artificial?) On the south side where a pottery studio stood, a new patio enclosed by megalithic limestone blocks awaits students, faculty and employees on breaks.
Once inside, perhaps the first thing the returning visitor will note, however, is the height of the ceilings in the vestibules and hallways.
"We took out as many as five layers of ceiling systems," says Court Camos, construction superintendent for Bartlett Cocke General Contractors. "Now it's more like a typical modern ceiling, which are usually nine to 10 feet high."
More than 100 years of schooling in these walls
How's that for thinking ahead on the frontier?
Designed and built mostly in 1915 and opened in 1916, Allan Junior High was named after John T. Allan, a Scottish immigrant who pursued careers as a cabinetmaker, carpenter, wheelwright, bookkeeper, lawyer, district attorney and state official. According to the Handbook of Texas, he is known as the "Father of Industrial Education in Texas."
Allan served briefly as an officer in the Confederate army in Louisiana before he was appointed Texas state treasurer in 1867. When $7,000 went missing from the treasury, a military board acquitted him of any wrongdoing. A Presbyterian and Republican, he died a bachelor in 1888.
Allan left his considerable estate to the city of Austin to establish a school for the practical trades as well as for basic scientific study. In 1896, with that money in hand, Austin High School adopted a manual-training program, the first of its kind in the South.
A surviving 1915 architectural plan for a new "High School Building" demonstrates Allan's legacy of practical education. Drawn up by R. Walsh Architects of Austin, it shows the original entrance for a three-story building on Rio Grande Street. Classrooms and a gym were planned for the rear on the ground floor.
One corridor leads to two large manual training rooms and an equally large "drawing room" aimed at those youths studying the industrial trades. Another corridor goes to two cooking rooms and two sewing rooms to support the study of domestic sciences.
An April 1, 1916, story published in a trade magazine stated that the cost of the building, advertised as fireproof, was $135,000, or $3.5 million in today's dollars.
In 1925, Allan Junior High, the first school to occupy the site in 1916, switched roles with “Old Red,” a 1900 brick Austin High structure on the other side of downtown where the First Baptist Church now sits.
After the Thanksgiving break that year, “Old Red” became Allan Junior High, and the Rio Grande campus became Stephen F. Austin High, which had begun classes back in 1881 in part of what is now an unused Pease Elementary building.
From 1925 to 1975, Austin High educated many thousands of students on Rio Grande Street before it moved to blocky lakeside quarters on what was then called Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake. It remains one of the only large high schools still located in the downtown of a major Texas city.
100 years later: renovations and restorations
Back at the Rio Grande campus, a western addition in 1925 almost doubled the size of the school and created the open-air courtyards that have been now blessedly covered and air conditioned. A new gym was placed on the other side of West Avenue in 1929. School leaders added an annex, connected to the main structure by an arcade, as well as a separate band hall near the gym in 1939. The annex east of West Avenue has not been renovated.
Altogether, from 1916 to 2017, when work began on the current rebuild, countless hours were spent by students and teachers as well as other school employees in these hallways, classrooms, locker rooms, kitchens, cafeterias, gyms, laboratories, practice halls, offices, libraries, trade shops and other rooms, some of which have switched roles repeatedly.
Some of those classrooms appear now in amplified versions of their original glory. One on the southeastern corner of the third floor looks much as it must have decades ago, albeit brighter. It offers an ideal view of the state Capitol to the east.
The college jokes that one government teacher has already claimed it as his own.
Some will surely miss the building's charming, old-fashioned theater spaces, including an auditorium that served the larger performance community on occasion.
"Our theater department has moved to Highland to be with our other arts programs," says ACC Chancellor Richard Rhodes. "And Army Futures Command can now use this new space as a software factory."
While redoing the auditorium, builders uncovered some baroque-style arches around the windows, which had been hidden behind plaster walls and echo the original palatial style for the school. They now complement the ultramodern Army Futures Command teaching center.
While remaking the building, contractors found an old report card from the 1950s, fast food packaging from the 1970s, a concert poster from the 1980s and a chalkboard covered with a teacher's notes hidden behind a wall.
"We would have saved chalkboard," Camos says. "But it had asbestos and so was safely removed."
1975: From high school to community college
In 1975, the palace that had already hosted some college night classes became an Austin Community College campus. Established in 1972, ACC first opened its doors in 1973 at the old L.C. Anderson High School campus, once segregated for the city’s Black students in East Austin. Plans are afoot to renovate that campus as well and I am currently gathering anecdotes from old Anderson High graduates.
Groundbreaking for work on the newest incarnation of this palace for learning took place on Aug. 10, 2017. The new ACC Rio Grande will contain 60 classrooms outfitted for as many as 5,000 students.
"It was crowded before," Rhodes says. "It has now been right-sized."
Whenever a big project like this is done on a historic building, a good deal of research is necessary in an attempt to define what part of the building belongs to the original structure and what has been added over the years. This process was overseen by Studio 8 Architects and, for the exteriors, Hutson Gallagher, along with Bartlett Cocke General Contractors.
"Archival drawings showed us nothing definitive about how the original was built," says Scott Stites, who oversees educational facilities work for Bartlett Cocke. "So we used a laser scan, which is accurate to 100th of an inch to build a digital model for the architects to use for the design and construction documents. But it could not reveal what it couldn't see.
"Prior to the scanning process, the Studio 8/Bartlett Cocke team investigated above the numerous ceiling layers and it turns out it was structure was made of concrete, not heavy timber and wood, which was very rare in Austin in 1915. It's an extremely stout building."
Another technique uncovered during the redo were corrugated sheet metal segments of an early concrete forming system above the ceilings.
These finds also explain why it was advertised as "fireproof" in 1916.
"We found the foundations bearing on existing limestone, some of which was fairly deteriorated," Stites says. "Once we demolished the auditorium floors and balconies in the center section of the building we needed to reinforce the walls with braces to provide the lateral stability previously provided by the demolished floors, etc.
"I've never seen anything like it. ... After we removed all the mud underneath the floors, the concrete frame is set stone and soil. It was pretty precarious. It looked like Stalingrad in here."
Chancellor Rhodes explains that part of the new renovations at Rio Grande will allow the college to expand its PACE program with UT-Austin. PACE is a co-enrollment program where students enroll at both ACC and UT for the freshman year. They take the majority of their classes at ACC Rio Grande and are eligible to live on the nearby UT campus where they complete three credit hours per semester.
The east side of the building will house learning spaces for the hearing impaired as part of a dedicated ASL program. Science labs are on the western side.
"You see the latest technology next to a window that looks like it did when this was Austin High," Rhodes says. "We wanted to maintain those historical features of the campus while bringing them into the classroom experience."
In fact, almost all the interior walls shimmer in an immaculate white. Yet ACC wanted to include some of the college's signature purple hues, so the stairwells are decorated with big blocks of the color. (Austin High's color is a similar maroon.)
The tented domes over the former courtyards, which will fulfill various functions, were made of a hybrid teflon product from Germany. Air lines pass through white pipes creating pillows of air between the two Teflon layers.
"They used this technique at Viking Stadium in Minneapolis," Camos says. " We know of only three times it has been used in Texas. Globe Life Field where the Texas Rangers play is the latest in Texas."
It is unlikely that even a few graduates of Allan Junior High, who would have been around 10 when their classes moved over to "Old Red" in 1925, are still around to help us recall the earliest days at the Rio Grande campus.
Scores of old Austin High graduates, however, have sent in their memories of the yellow palace. ACC students, too, remember when it served their utilitarian need, sometimes in rather dim, cramped spaces.
A whole new set of memories will be born when faculty members arrive this summer and when students join them in the fall.
"I think we have a good mix here of honoring the history," Rhodes says, "yet moving into the future of education in Austin."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.