Mike Chapman, with Chapman Sisson Architects, spent a lot of time in the old Grissom High School building. His two sons played basketball for a combined eight years, so there were many afternoons and evenings where Mike sat on those plastic bleachers, cheering on the Tigers as so, so many people had done before him.
Grissom High School has been a Huntsville landmark for the last 48 years. With roughly 1,500 students each year, it’s impacted thousands of movers and shakers across the country. For those who went there, it’s almost a rite of passage—they survived the crowded halls, the hard classes and the infamous building design that let in little natural light.
So, in 2013, when Huntsville City Schools selected Chapman Sisson Architects to build the new high school, Mike and the design team knew they had to come up with something better, something that would benefit the new students while preserving the legacy of the thousands of Tigers who had already graduated.
After 1 ½ years of design and 2 ½ years of construction, the new building opened to students for the 2017-2018 school year, with former Tigers flocking to the ribbon cutting ceremony to see what the younger classes will be experiencing. Gone were the old, dark hallways lined with brown lockers, and the pie-shaped classrooms were replaced with larger, more efficient spaces and lots of windows. In fact, Mike has tried to count the total number of exterior windows in the new building. At last count, 572!
Chapman Sisson Architects spent nearly a month coming up with preliminary designs before showing them to then-superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski. After reviewing the various schemes, Dr. Wardynski took 15 seconds to select the layout for the new building—a V-shaped spine with the freshmen class on one side, the older students on the other and a common area for the grades to mingle.
Grissom High School has a lot to offer its students—advanced placement classes, dance and theater programs, ROTC and other options for academics, sports and extra-curricular activities. That’s why the physical structure was so important. They needed something that would accommodate everything from basketball to ballet.
“Sometimes we take for granted how rewarding it is to see a vision of something like that come to reality and then how it will affect so many people in the future,” Mike said. “It’s always challenging to design a building of this magnitude with so many program requirements and preferred adjacencies, code restrictions, state regulations, security considerations, owner tendencies—and by the way, make it look nice, too.”
What’s neat—at least for the incoming freshmen—is they have their own segregated drop-off location. Older students drive themselves to school, but it’s the 14 and 15-year olds who still rely on their parents. Now the freshmen get a softer entrance to high school instead of fighting their way through 18-year-old athletes on their way to class.
In many ways, there’s a big difference between a freshmen and a senior, and it was tough to get through the narrow halls of the old building in the five minutes allotted between classes. The new design addresses that issue.
Grissom alumni who visit the new high school will find some big differences between their days on Bailey Cove and the new building near Lowes off of South Parkway.
First, there are large, efficient classrooms and windows to the outside. The old building was built in a time when architects thought windows would be a distraction for students. The 1960s and ’70s were also a time when people were looking to conserve energy, so they eliminated windows to keep utility costs down, Mike said.
It’s been a long-running joke for Grissom students, even naming their yearbook, “Without Windows.”
You also won’t see hallways lined with lockers in the new high schools. Since Huntsville City Schools moved to exclusively use tablets and laptops, there is no need for students to store heavy textbooks.
One of Mike’s favorite features is the Greenpower USA track. Students who are part of this program design and build their own electric cars. The one-mile track around the school, designed for racing competitions, allows students test their designs without leaving school grounds. This track is one of the first of its kind on a high school campus in the United States.
And, of course, Mike loves the basketball gym they designed—even though he admits he’s a little biased.
“With both boys playing the eight years at Grissom and one actually playing in college, I have probably been to at least 150 gyms over the last 15 years,” Mike said. “I made mental notes of each gym—what worked well and what didn’t. With this experience and input from the GHS coaches, we feel it is one of the top gyms in the state.”
Virgil I. Grissom
While students have chanted “Virgil I. till I die” for years at Grissom events, there wasn’t a huge emphasis placed on who Virgil “Gus” Grissom was. Mike said the new school is designed to change that, starting in the lobby.
“A large mural of Gus Grissom was installed on the wall in the front lobby,” Mike said. “2017 marks fifty years since his death. We wanted students in the future to know who Gus Grissom was and the ultimate sacrifice he made to the development of space exploration.”
While the building has changed in many ways, the Tiger spirit lives on in the generations of students who proudly bear the orange and brown.
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