Writeable walls, four skylights, an experimental black box theater—the features of a new $28 million building of the Riverdale Country School seem impressive even by private school standards and are generating a lot of buzz among parents, students and architects.
The 23,000-square-foot building opened at the River Campus last fall to accommodate lower school students. It replaced the Perkins building that had been built in 1967.
“I think the new building is really cool,” Cleo Michel, a fifth grader, told The Press in an email. “We have a theater with a huge selection of chairs and a big stage. Also, the classrooms are a big upgrade in size compared to the old building. I also love the back outside space—it’s a shortcut that makes it faster to get to and from activities.”
Cleo’s parents, Lee and Fritz Michel, said they liked the mix of modern architecture and historic features.
The parents “appreciate the layout and flow of the new space, which fosters the sharing of ideas amongst upper learning faculty and students alike,” the couple said in a joint email.
The building also received an enthusiastic review this year from Architectural Record, a magazine, which likened the space to “the custom headquarters of a startup.”
For some parents and alumni, it also feels like the custom hub of a learning center.
“What impresses me the most is that every aspect of the building, from the floors to walls to windows were designed to be part of the educational experience,” Dan Rosen, a 1992 graduate and a current student’s father, said in an email. “It is not just a new building. It is a learning experience that enables teachers and students to explore together in an always changing environment.”
His son, a fifth-grader at the school, likes the writeable walls, Rosen said.
Kim Yao, an architect at Architecture Research Office who co-designed the building together with Stephen Cassell, said the architects had observed teachers and students during the school day and asked teachers about how they used their space, before incorporating those ideas into the new building’s design.
“The building is really imagined as a series of rooms tied to a common thread: the great hallway that connects other spaces and anchors on both sides by these big multipurpose collaborative room spaces. One being a multipurpose theater. The other being a multi-purpose student center, which is also a cafeteria,” Yao said.
The architects also wanted the new building to fit in with Riverdale’s geography. “It was important to us that the building has a quiet presence in between the two Victorian houses that are on campus,” Yao said.
Dominic Randolph, head of school at the Riverdale Country School, said the openness and flexibility of the space was a particularly welcome change from the old structure.
“The classrooms have more natural light, are open to the campus and provide larger spaces for the 20 students and two teachers in each classroom,” he said. “The corridors are wider and have alcoves that offer additional learning spaces throughout the building. All of the furniture is movable and the spaces are reconfigurable.”
With the new building, the third, fourth and fifth grades are located next to each other and there is a technology and science lab. “That allows us to help teachers and students make their project work a reality,” said Randolph in an email.
The new Lower School also allowed for the cafeteria to be housed on-site. Before it was built, the school prepared meals at its Hill campus and transported them to the River one, Randolph said.
The new structure has nine classrooms and the glass-walled cafeteria, which is also a meeting space. The experimental theater has retractable seats and doubles as a multipurpose learning area. Construction took place during the 2015-2016 school year and the building opened in September 2016, according to the school’s website.
“We spent a long time in the planning stages really thinking about what we needed as part of a broader campus plan,” Randolph said. “The building feels as though it has always been a part of this campus. I also think it is highly functional and the students immediately took to the space. I think that is a good sign of a successful building.”