A place for the arts: Additions give H-F High School arts programs a boost
Homewood-Flossmoor High School now has an official Fine Arts Center. The $14 million project at the South Building was completed in December.
The center includes 9,000 square feet of remodeled space for fine arts programs and 30,000 square feet of new space built around the Mall Auditorium. School officials hope students and staff will move into the spaces this month.
Each of the five specialties — choir, band, orchestra, theater and fine arts — has a designated space.
Choir, orchestra and band get new performance and practice rooms; a black box theater expands the opportunities for performance; and new classrooms, studio spaces and a new dark room will serve fine arts students.
The media program, part of the Fine Arts Department, is tied to Viking Broadcasting and will remain in its current space.
“I cannot wait to see what creativity comes from these spaces in the future!” said teacher and Fine Arts Department Chairperson Jackie Wargo.
Her fellow teachers agree. They expect the center will lead to new and innovative art.
“I truly believe that collaboration, sharing of ideas and creativity is contagious and by moving the areas of art, music and theater together in the same area, students will have a richer opportunity to engage with other artistic minds and share in the passions that connect them,” said teacher Candi Wilk.
Teacher J.R. Willard-Rose calls it “cross-overs” because students can be passionate about music and cross over to art, or love art and cross over to theater.
“It’ll be really nice for those kids to feel like it’s a home in a space that’s top of the line and for them,” he said.
The black box theater was built onto the back of the auditorium, and the choir, orchestra and band rooms were constructed on what was a grassy knoll just to the south of the auditorium. Fine arts moves into space vacated by the music programs and remodeled to their specific needs.
A team from DLA Ltd. Architects created the new spaces using a team of 10 to 20 people. The project was staffed with an interior designer, a job captain, three or four production staff and architects. They called in specialists in theater design and acoustics, as well as mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection to offer input as plans were finalized.
DLA brought in matching stone and brick colors from the H-F Fieldhouse to begin developing a unified presentation for campus buildings. The general contractor on the job was Cosgrove Construction of Joliet.
Long time coming
Architect Ed Wright said the Fine Arts Center was discussed more than a decade ago when DLA updated H-F’s long-range survey of physical plant needs with the District 233 school board.
Originally it was looked at as space for music and theater programs, but the space was reconfigured after the board agreed to establish a special arts curriculum, the MVP Program (media, visual & performing arts).
Discussions on how best to serve all student groups went on for several years. In 2017 a plan was presented, and meetings with staff and the community proceeded. But in 2018, several board members balked, saying the project was too expensive.
But the school board approved the project in June 2019, using reserve funds to pay for the project avoiding debt and a tax increase.
Superintendent Von Mansfield said he is delighted to see the project come to fruition.
“I couldn’t be more proud of having the opportunity to complete this long-awaited project after almost 12 years of planning,” he said. “Offering our students, staff and community the very best facilities and programming has always been at the forefront of every capital improvement initiative while remaining fiscally responsible.”
Over the past dozen years, the arts programs simply outgrew their spaces. By one estimate, the Fine Arts Department offers more than 50 courses, and about 40 percent of the student population takes at least one art course.
For example, over the last 10 years, band membership jumped from 86 students to close to 200 students. That’s a great reflection on the program, but the only spaces that could accommodate the full band were the Mall Auditorium stage or the football field.
Small orchestral ensembles, theater students blocking scenes, jazz band members preparing for a concert — all could be found practicing in hallways because there was no available space for them.
Amenities make the space
“Now we have at least double the practice space,” said teacher and band director Sarah Whitlock. “It’s going to make our jobs easier, so that’s a big thing. The space is more state of the art. We’re going to have more opportunities to work with different parts of technology.
“We have a state-of-the-art sound system and projection system. We’re able to record instantly in the classroom and play it back, so we can get real-time AURAL feedback. A lot of the time (the students) never hear themselves unless I’m recording on my iPad and I play it back for them. This way they’re able to get that feedback right away. Which is really cool.”
Steve Sifner, choir director, said: “The new choir room is outfitted with audiovisual and recording equipment that is second to none in today’s time. Unlike the old room, our new space has tall ceilings and abundant natural light.
“The acoustics in our space is a marked improvement over what we had previously in the choir room, where sound paneling on the walls absorbed a good deal of our groups’ sounds. The new space was designed for choirs in mind. It is reverberant, open and a beautiful space for our art.”
Wright of DLA said the architects worked with Threshold Acoustics, specialists doing major projects around the world.
“There are a number of steps that went into the selection of equipment. We first met with the faculty and administration to understand how they taught and used their previous spaces. What was working and what could work better, and what would they like to do that they could not,” Wright said.
“In addition, we showed them other facilities that they may not be familiar with and showed them how those operate,” he told the Chronicle. “From there they actually ran acoustical models of the spaces to see how they will perform and we made adjustments to the design so they can perform optimally.
“As for the equipment, we then made recommendations based on the feedback that we received and our experience” and worked within the budget parameters. Ceilings reach 18 feet in keeping with acoustics requirements.
Theater students put on nine productions a year, but never had a dressing room or space to create scenery. Now they will have a dressing room with a rest room, a prop shop and storage space. Teacher Willard-Rose is especially excited for the possibilities the black box theater will offer.
Seating for 200 audience members can be arranged either on the floor or on moveable platforms making it easy to arrange a theater experience on two, three or four sides of the stage.
“In the black box, you can really create and tailor make it for the performers and the audience per show,” Willard-Rose said. “It will be different every time you go in there.”
Each program had storage issues, whether for artwork or uniforms, instruments or a library of sheet music. These concerns were addressed. For example, the band had a large instrument room, but it was too small for every instrument so they’d be left scattered about the room.
“Now the space we have is just phenomenal. The large instrument room is just for that equipment, so the only things that will be out are things that we’d use every day,” band director Whitlock said.
“We have a percussion room and it has the big garage door,” Whitlock explained. “Before when we had to get instruments out for rehearsal and twice a week for games, we had to put in the serviceable ramp and take the stanchion out of the door. Now it’s a garage door and we’ll just push the (instruments) out.”
Students will find the hallways are wider and the rooms have plenty of natural light.
Display cases will give H-F a chance to show off student honors, and there is a designated space for a student art gallery.
A fine finished product
“We couldn’t be happier with the project and are excited to fill it with staff, students and programming as soon as we can,” said Steve Anderson, District 233 board president. “Our administration and partners at DLA did a great job…in order to bring the project together in a way that meets many of the needs of our ever expanding Fine Arts Department.”
Fine Arts Department Chair Wargo thanked board members for their decision to move forward with the project. She recalled the May 2019 Solar Wind program that involved more than 500 H-F students from every art discipline, and has high hopes “that there might be more opportunities for events like that in the future.”