The Cooper School's origins were very humble, serving 13 students six years ago in a converted 1950 duplex on Saint Andrews Boulevard.
The private K-5 school has been expanding ever since and took a dramatic step recently with an expansion that not only increased its size but also created an eye-catching form for those driving past on the busy highway.
The school had worked with architect Eddie Bello of McMillan Pazdan Smith, says Principal Kate Shorter, and their goal for the expansion was to create a structure that expressed the school's culture.
“We're a progressive school, and part of what that means is we're thinking about what is contemporary in our society,” Shorter says. “We are also a school that believes in community and believes in collaboration among students and teachers.”
Toward that end, Bello found himself with a teaching role, as did workers with contractor Tupper Builders Inc. They all interacted with students to discuss the design and construction of the new wing.
This part of Charleston has been in a dramatic state of flux, as growing traffic makes the small homes built on a once quiet road less desirable to live in.
But Charleston never has been a place to tear down large swaths of the past, not in its historic downtown or in its 20th century suburbs.
While a mix of offices, shops and other institutions like the Cooper School increasingly occupy what were once residences, there has been a continuity of height and scale, even as architectural styles have branched out.
The new Cooper School addition blends with the duplex in color and height, but its single-story, large windows and shed roof also have a big impact, serving as a sort of announcement of the school's arrival here.
A cantilevered bay toward Saint Andrews makes the building appear lighter, while a tall piazza on the northern and western facades shades the building and provides an important gathering space for students. The piazza's northern edge follows the old property line.
Inside, the space can be divided into two class areas separated by a large glass pane and a series of moveable panels that double as bulletin boards.
The shed roof angles down toward the 1950 duplex to help maximize the height of the windows and the amount of natural light. One reason the bulletin boards are on the panels is there wasn't enough wall space left for them.
While the school is progressive, Shorter says it also respects the lessons of the past, such as connecting with the outdoors.
Its enrollment is now at 73 students, and the school plans to add 15 more students next year. It has bought the former house at 13 Oakdale Place and uses that property for its office and vehicular access.
A gray fence with horizontal slats creates a sense of separation and security between the school's classroom buildings and its office, while also being something one can easily see through (sort of like a chain link fence, but with far superior aesthetics).
The school is expected to continue to grow — the current hyphen between the original school and its new addition eventually will serve as its front door, while a two-story addition is planned for a corner of its playground area.
Even with the expansion, space remains at a premium here, but it's also pleasing to see how little of it goes to waste.
“We believe creativity and innovation happens in well-organized spaces,” Shorter says.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.