Putnam High School building gets renovation for the 21st century

Photo courtesy of Aaron Flaum of the Norwich Bulletin
October 12, 2014

Walk into Putnam High School and at first glance it seems as though nothing unusual is going on.

Walk toward the auditorium and the first hints of change appear with boarded up doors blocking entrance to the space. It requires a walk outside the school and toward the back of the building to see the auditorium no longer exists.

The demolished auditorium is the first casualty of a massive $36.6 million renovation that will change everything about the building except its outside walls.

“We’re trying to balance tradition with a flexible educational environment,” Superintendent William Hull said.

Those two principals have been the guiding force in planning and executing the school renovation. In April 2013, voters approved renovating the 1955 building as new, which means it should last another 50 years, Hull said.

The renovations will include window replacement, science lab renovations, upgrades to the building’s electrical, heating and structural systems and an expanded gym. A portion of what was once the auditorium will be converted to space for the central office and Board of Education, as well as a community room that will be available for use by other organizations in town.

A medical pathways program will be launched thanks to the renovations. Hull said he hopes to have the program started next year with two classes. The PutnamAlternativeLearningSchool will also return to the building.

On paper the changes seem interesting. But walk through the space with Hull and Assistant Principal Jackie Vetrovec and the paper descriptions take on a new life.

The auditorium will be replaced with a black box theater housed in a different location. The theater will be used for more than arts. It will host class meetings, projects and film review for sports teams.

The footprint of the school will remain mostly the same, but many things inside will be relocated, Vetrovec said. The library will move to the main entrance and become a multi-media center. The only change to the footprint of the building will be an addition for the gymnasium.

When the renovations are complete there will be signs of changes from the front of the building.

A cupola will be added to the roof, letting natural light stream into the main entrance. Gone will be the two steps leading to the front door, making the school more handicapped-friendly.

Walk into the school and that natural light will create a dramatic open feel for school.

“It’s dark in here now,” Hull said. “That’s how they built schools in the ’50s. This is how we build schools now.”

In addition to the natural light the corners of the buildings will be softened by using glass and fewer 90-degree angles, Vetrovec said.

The lobby is also the site of one of the most talked-about aspects of the renovation, a new seal. The existing seal was paid for and created by the classes of 1957 and 58, It is inlaid in the floor and could not be saved. The classes have been involved in the redesign and a new version is posted on the district’s website for comment. Hull and Vetrovec said so far the new design has received a thumbs-up from those who have commented.

Although the seal is in the center of a busy hallway, out of tradition and respect, students don’t step on it. Vetrovec said she thinks the new seal will be treated the same way.

The seal also may highlight two key factors in the school’s design: The community’s involvement and investment in the building and the students’ commitment to their high school.

“This high school is already the community’s high school,” Vetrovec said.

“Long after we’re gone this school will still be serving Putnam,” Hull said.

Read the original story in the Norwich Bulletin.