To celebrate its centennial, St. Albans School, a private boys’ school founded in 1909, embarked on its first new construction project in nearly 30 years. The institution hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to complete a 25,000-square-foot renovation and a 30,000-square-foot expansion that would house a student center, classrooms, and faculty offices. The school, which had developed slowly over the years and did not follow a rational plan, also hoped that the architects could create a cohesive linkage between four of its existing buildings that were somewhat haphazardly arranged.
SOM looked to St. Albans’ context for inspiration. The school is located on Mount St. Albans, the highest elevation in the D.C. area as well as the grounds of the National Cathedral, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. The landscape architect conceived of the cathedral’s surrounds as a cathedral close, outlining a network of garden walkways that he called “pilgrim paths.” These paths guide visitors slowly up the forested hill, revealing framed views of important D.C. landmarks along the way before terminating at the cathedral.
SOM developed an architectural language around the idea of Olmsted’s paths, creating a series of interior and exterior passages that rise 60 feet, joining St. Albans’ lower campus with its main entrance above. Along this route, just as Olmsted intended, there are gathering areas, whether within enclosed, cantilevered volumes or upon open-air terraces, offering views of the surroundings. The design shuns the typical campus architecture of enclosed quads in favor of interconnectivity with the landscape.
The new building itself, known as Marriott Hall, is an uncompromising modernist slab that also attempts a familial relationship to the neo-Gothic architecture of the existing campus. SOM accomplished this by cladding much of the exterior and terraced walkways with a blue stone that closely resembles the Potomac stone used in the original 1909 buildings. “The stone is imprecise,” said Roger Duffy, design partner at SOM. “We did a lot of mockups with the mason to ensure a textural match with the existing architecture.”
The classrooms themselves are clad in floor-to-ceiling glass. The architects carefully controlled the daylight in the interior by installing a light shelf eight feet up the glass wall. Below that point, the glass is outfitted with a ceramic frit at 30 percent density; above, the glass is clear. This mitigates glare and heat gain, while allowing full sunlight to bounce off the shelf and turn the ceiling into an indirect reflector. Fluorescent lamps atop the shelf ensure that day or night classrooms receive the same degree of illumination.