San Diego’s oldest high school is in the midst of a $24 million project that will refresh and modernize the school.
Founded in 1882 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in Normal Heights is renovating its campus – part of which dates back to the 1920s – and adding new elements including a performing arts center and more classroom space.
The school in the first stage of the project completed the renovation of the oldest buildings on campus – the 19,424 square-foot Navarra Hall, formerly Aquinas Hall, and the 15,432 square-foot Shiley Hall, named for philanthropists Darlene and Donald Shiley. Donald Shiley was the inventor of the Bjork-Shiley valve a prosthetic heart valve.
The school will break ground this summer on the second stage of the project that will include a 23,089 square-foot subterranean building that will include a 2,626 square-foot theater, a dance studio, music room, set shop and media center.
“It’s a blended renovation and addition to existing facilities,” said David Pfeifer, principal at domusstudio, the Bankers Hill firm that designed the project.
Johnson & Jennings based in Kearney Mesa was the general contractor.
Treated with Care
Built in 1925 in an Italian Renaissance style by the San Diego construction company of Lowerison and Wolstencroft as designed by architect Ilton E. Loveless, Navarra Hall “is kind of the spectacular showcase of campus,” Pfeifer said.
“It does not have a historic designation but we treated as though it did and maintained and restored all of its exterior character and beauty,” Pfeifer said.
Pfeifer described the building as “a hollow clay tile, Spanish Revival structure, with double hung windows, very ornate details.”
“We underwent a heavy remodel where we generalized the classrooms, made them less specific and more adaptable to contemporary learning and teaching styles,” Pfeifer said. “The interior was all wood frame walls and floors. We replaced load bearing walls with columns and beams, steel and wood so the floor plan could be more open and adaptable.”
The renovation included creating “very, very wide open hallways,” Pfeifer said. “There’s lots of breakout space – niches as small as a two-person banquette to a 20-person gathering space where students can work on a group project to the connect in between classes or after school.”
“A lot of our culture is based on collaboration and sisterhood and learning beyond classroom walls so we needed breakout spaces,” said Lauren Lek, head of school at Our Lady of Peace.
Shiley Hall, formerly St. Joseph’s Hall, is the newer of the two older structures on campus, built in 1968.
“It had a very bland aesthetic to it,” Pfeifer said.
It was gutted down to the concrete and left the ceilings exposed, removing a dropped ceiling to raise the ceiling height to nine feet.
“These are very big rooms,” Pfeifer said. “We really needed that vertical dimension.”
Wooden operable windows were added along with stucco and roof tile elements “that made it more than just a straight, up-and-down concrete box,” Pfeifer said.
Special lighting was added inside to provide direct and indirect lighting, and six labs were added, five of which are a combination of biology and chemistry labs and one designated as a maker’s space with roll-up doors that includes a robotics lab.
“We have a nationally competitive robotics team,” Lek said, and Pfeifer said part of the renovation including building a small room off a hallway where the students’ robotic handiwork is on display.
Before the renovation, the school had only two science labs, Lek said.
“Now we have multidisciplinary science labs that are just incredible,” Lek said.
Some of Shiley’s medical equipment has been put on display in Shiley Hall to inspire students. The building has become home to the school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs.
The Sisters of St. Joseph were known for the lace they produced.
“They developed a very signature pattern in the lace that is very iconic to this order,” Pfeifer said
The sisters taught young women how to make lace, Lek said, which at the time “would be akin to learning how to code today,” Lek said.
The pattern of the historic lace was laser cut into the balcony and stairway railings throughout the renovated buildings.
A metal panel at the entrance to Navarra Hall also has the lace pattern.
The school also has large mosaic of Mother Teresa in Navarra Hall, commemorating her visit to the school in the 1970s.
Another mural depicts the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph during the 20th Century.
“I wanted our students to walk around and be inspired by the values of our sisters,” Lek said.
The sisters have been replaced by lay teachers.
“Even though the sisters aren’t here, I would say that the graduates today know more about the sisters today because we tell their story,” Lek said.
Pfeifer said changes were made in the project as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What was wonderful was it was under construction when the pandemic hit. We were actually better able to adapt some of the building systems to respond to COVID,” Pfeifer said.
Among other things, ultraviolet sanitizers were added to air conditioning ducts.
Operable windows already planned fit in with the COVID protocols.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project for about a year, but Lek said the delay worked to the school’s advantage.
The school was able to use the site of the new building to move some of its programs outdoors until construction started.
A bonus was that Johnson & Jennings and domusstudio offered classes in construction and architecture during the project, Lek said.
“They got to actually put on hardhats and work in the field and learn about that field,” Lek said. “I can’t tell you how many girls as a result of that partnership are thinking about careers in construction.”
Through mid-March, the school had raised about $11.2 million for the project, Lek said.
“We’re prepared to take on loans for a portion but our goal is to continue fundraising,” Lek said.