Old playing card factory could be hip, cool school, architect says

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross




A “massive amount of natural light” will stream into the classrooms of the new French immersion school proposed for a decaying former International Playing Card factory whose windows have been bricked up for years.

This 1928 Art Deco building on Mercer Street was originally designed with light in mind, says project architect Colin McDonald from J.P. Thomson Architects, the firm charged with converting the abandoned building into a 650-student school for the Greater Essex County District School Board.

A report on the proposed alterations to the heritage-listed building will be presented Tuesday to the city’s planning, heritage and economic development standing committee.

The 90-year-old building’s original design followed the approach of renowned Detroit architect Albert Khan, who created industrial buildings with huge windows and skylights, believing that productivity and efficiency go up when there is lots of natural light, said McDonald, who believes this building is well-suited to become a place of learning.

It has five big roof monitors which are like little glass penthouses mounted on the roof, conveying natural light onto the factory floor. Even with 20 big 11-by-16-foot windows bricked in, there’s so much light you practically don’t need artificial light in the daytime, he said.

Part of the plan is to restore all the original windows with glass.

But this isn’t just a restoration of a building that once manufactured Bicycle and Bee brand playing cards. Due to the severe deterioration the building has suffered — from water damage and structural fatigue — the gameplan is “deconstruction/reconstruction.”

This means taking the walls down brick by brick, cataloguing each original brick and stone. The existing steel frame will be strengthened with new footings, foundation, cross-bracing and perimeter steel columns. The wood joists in the roof will be doubled to meet modern code requirements. And the exterior walls will be rebuilt using the old bricks and stonework, as well as matching new brick where old bricks are missing.

“We’ll be reusing everything we possibly can that is structurally sound and then we’ll be reconstructing the building piece-by-piece to match exactly what was there prior,” said McDonald, whose firm also oversaw the restoration of the John Campbell school several years ago. “It will look exactly like the original building.”

The building’s 35,000 square feet of space will be augmented by a two-storey 37,000-square-foot addition at the back, providing the students will all the amenities — including a gym, preschool, specialized classrooms and outdoor play areas — that new schools usually get. 

The new school will look hip and cool, he said. “I think it will be something extremely exciting for the community.”

The students who will move into the building are now in the former W.D. Lowe high school on Giles Boulevard. Public board co-ordinator of engineering Giuliana Hinchliffe said that students and parents are anxious to get into the new building.

It had a $15.4-million budget, back when the board planned to demolish the old building and erect a modern school. When city council denied the demolition permit, the board sat down with the city to figure out how to preserve the building’s heritage features. Hinchliffe said it’s too early estimate the new price tag.

Tuesday’s committee meeting could bring the first in a long line of approvals needed before the new school is built. But if all goes as planned, Hinchliffe said it could be finished in the 2019-20 school year.

“I think it’s going to be a very open, warm and inviting school,” which will combine heritage features with modern features of a new school, she said.

Coun. Rino Bortolin, who represents the area, said he believes the end result will be worth it.

“I think what you’re going to get … is a much more aesthetically pleasing, unique, quality school out of this.”