Preservation in Print September 2016 Cover Story: McGehee Masterpiece

It is known across the region for its excellent academic reputation, devoted alumnae and pristine setting in New Orleans’ famed Garden District.

But the prestigious Louise S. McGehee School for Girls and its staff are now being celebrated with another designation: Preservationists of the Year.

The Foundation for Historic Louisiana will recognize the girls’ college preparatory school with the award at a ceremony this month, just weeks after McGehee opens Mathilde Bernard Villere Hall, its newest school building and historic renovation project, to the new class of McGehee Little Gate students.

With the addition of Mathilde Hall, built in 1874 at 2318 St. Charles Ave., McGehee’s campus now includes all but two buildings on the entire city block bound by St. Charles Avenue, Philip and First streets and Prytania. Six of the buildings are historic, five pre-dating the Civil War, and McGehee has adaptively reused them all while retaining many of the home’s’ original, spectacular features.

For the one, two and three-year-olds who attend school in Mathilde Hall, learning will take place within rooms enlivened by historic details such as original fireplaces and mantels, ornate plaster archways, pocket doors and hardwood floors that are 140 years old. Plaster details, including lion heads, grace mantels and doorways. “I cannot wait to observe the children interacting with this art from the past — I think there will be lots of roaring going on,” said Mimi Odem, director of McGehee’s Lower School admissions and Reggio pedagogical mentor.

“All the latest and leading brain research shows us that these precious years — from birth to five — are the most important years in regards to creating a wide map of learning possibilities in a child’s mind,” Odem said. “Mathilde Hall’s original architecture offers a world of opportunities for children to pretend, create, wonder and discover — all the while feeling the warmth of being in an old home.”

No Small Task
Photo by Charles E Leche
Photo by Charles E Leche

McGehee acquired Mathilde Hall in spring 2014, said Headmistress Eileen Powers — an exciting purchase that further connected the campus via the school buildings’ backyard lots and made their stunning Mary Alice Quinn ‘54 Butterfly Garden, located on the east side of Mathilde Hall, more accessible.

It completes a row of four grand homes on St. Charles Avenue owned, operated and lovingly renovated by McGehee. Local architecture firm Jahncke and Burns, which has been involved with plans and care of all of McGehee’s historic buildings, designed the building’s transformation with the goal of “preserving as much historic fabric and character as we practically could,” while also making the eight classrooms inside compliant with health and safety codes, said Harvey Burns, principal of Jahncke and Burns.

The home had been used as two apartments for at least 60 years, Burns said, so when construction began in October 2015, first on the to-do list was demolition of non-historic alterations that had been made to accommodate the apartments.

Want PIP in your mailbox? Join PRC today!

“We gutted the interior of the structure to see what was going on and eliminate concerns,” he said. Contractor Crane Builders replaced all of the sheetrock, and wood beams when necessary, and coordinated work by a myriad of subcontractors throughout the project.

Historic elements were carefully restored: Plaster archways were brought back to life by craftsman Tommy Lachin, who also molded and installed new plaster medallions in many of the rooms. A grand, hand milled staircase was restored, and a code-compliant handrail was added without detracting from the feature’s architectural integrity. Stained glass windows that date from the 1860s to 1880s were repaired and cleaned, and the home’s original hardwood floors were refinished by Troendle Floors.

Outside, the home’s original wood siding was largely reused, as were the historic wood windows. Doors were replaced, but replicated to match what was originally there. A new first-floor gallery was created beneath an original second-floor balcony, complete with columns and balustrades milled to look like they had always been there.

Transforming a home into a school building with eight classrooms made for creative uses of space, meaning some rooms have irregular shapes. This is a huge asset, Odem said: “The unique shapes of the classrooms have given the teachers opportunities to create interesting nooks for exploring materials and solving joyful problems.”

For Burns, it meant there would be design challenges to overcome. Bathroom areas needed to be added to each room in a way that didn’t detract from the room’s character, but also provided privacy, for example. A separate HVAC system was required for each classroom, and new electrical systems required installation, as well. The first five feet of the tall, original windows had to be equipped with protective glazing to harden the glass. The addition of storage spaces for supplies was also needed.

Teachers worked closely with the architect and contractors to find solutions to all these challenges; Burns and his crew succeeded at minimizing the impact of modern materials to let the historic details throughout shine.

The result is a building where students and teachers can connect in unexpected ways.

“I love all the shared openings between classrooms and the community learning spaces,” Odem said. “We have such unique ways to collaborate and connect with each other in Mathilde Hall. There are floor-to-ceiling windows to enter your classroom in the morning and there are pocket doors that open into a neighbor’s classroom to share an exploration or activity. Additionally,  there are windows between these spaces to see friends and fellow teachers. We now have a variety of ways to enter and exit our numerous green spaces and outdoor classrooms.”

The third classroom
Photo by Charles E Leche
Photo by Charles E Leche

McGehee was founded in 1912, and since 1929 the school has maintained its anchor building, the 1868 Bradish Johnson House, which today serves as its library and as Upper School classrooms.

“We’re one of the few places I can think of where the campus itself, its architecture, is an education, because there’s a lot to know about each building,” said Headmistress Powers. “Andwe don’t have any two buildings done by the same architect.”

The architects of the homes that McGehee now owns are an illustrious group, including Henry Howard and James Freret. “They all represent different periods of architectural development in New Orleans,” she said, and the environment they provide is absolutely unique.

In addition to the historic classroom settings, the outdoor spaces on campus further enliven education at McGehee. The Butterfly Garden, a beautifully landscaped space whose design models the life and transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, is a learning laboratory for students.

But even the paths and green spaces that connect buildings hold opportunities for students, Powers said. “This place is a myriad of different courtyards. Girls can go outside and eat, or study, have class outside or put on a play…it provides an ideal environment, when the weather is good.”

With the acquisition of Mathilde Hall, McGehee has expanded its campus greenspace, connecting to the rest of the campus of courtyards behind the school building itself. It will also allow McGehee to reclaim classroom space meant for older students that has, in recent years, been taken up by the growing Little Gate Childhood Education program for small children.

Little Gate adheres to the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, an Italian methodology that emphasizes child-directed, experiential learning.

In this philosophy, the impact of the learning environment is so powerful, it is described as the ‘third teacher.’

“To be given the opportunity to create learning spaces for young children in this gorgeous home was truly a dream come true,” Odem said. “When our environment is wondrous, magical and as breathtaking as it is in Mathilde Hall, we are communicating to both the child and the parent that we strongly believe in the importance of early childhood education.”

Burns and the McGehee team worked with the State Historic Preservation Office to ensure that the restoration of the building’s historic details were done properly, and the project will qualify for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits. Other subcontractors that were key to realizing this major renovation include New Orleans Millworks, Mediterranean Tile, Guaranty Sheet Metal and Roofing, and Al Borgeois Plumbing and Heating.

Mathilde Hall is part of a $5.2 million capital campaign project for McGehee that includes the renovation of the house and other associated costs.

Check out a gallery of amazing pictures of McGehee by photographer Charles E. Leche below, or you can click here to view them on Flickr.