Here’s what to expect as Salt Lake City weighs rebuilding West High School

Architects listened to feedback from parents ahead of the start of feasibility studies to rebuild the iconic building.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School in Salt Lake City, Monday, July 18, 2022.

Walking through 100-year-old West High School feels can feel like entering a time machine. After its reconstruction in 1922, a different wing has been added to the school’s original skeleton nearly every decade since.

The result, according to architects commissioned to look at rebuilding the historic structure, is a claustrophobic campus with narrow hallways and classrooms that have been divided in half to accommodate an expanding student body. Some rooms intended to seat 20 students hold 40.

As one of the oldest standing schools in Utah, West High holds its share of relics: a choir room with stadium seating that makes it difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, struggling heating and cooling systems, and 13 unsecured entrances built long before the modern spread of mass shootings. The Frankenstein nature of the wings requires them to undergo unique maintenance.

The district’s school board selected Salt Lake City-based firm VCBO Architecture to conduct a feasibility study for rebuilding the school. The district has hired Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects to carry out the same type of study at Highland High School, and will listen to feedback about Highland on Thursday at 7 p.m. in its auditorium.

On Wednesday night, VCBO presented its plan for West’s feasibility study, with a timeline that extends to February.

“You guys, as a school and a school district, are working and adapting to the site, rather than making the building, the site and the school work for you,” said architect Brian Peterson.

And still, some people don’t want to see it go.

“I’m not doubting their intentions at all, but I was upset, absolutely,” said class of 2011 West High alumna Karissa Valenzuela Nelson. “It’s like an odd detachment.”

After she attended several schools growing up, Valenzuela Nelson said, sewing late into the night for theater productions at West made it the only school that felt like home to her.

She is emotionally attached to “the tiny little details — like the beautiful, almost medieval, art deco fringing and the roof,” she said. Even going on lockdown because of the notorious bats, which often appear in the school during their migratory season, made West students “feel like they were a part of something,” she said.

West High School alumnus and parent Jared Wright said the “admiring eye” he once had for the school started to see more deficiencies once he became the principal in 2020. He told the auditorium of about 50 parents, alumni and community members that he understood their passion for the school, but encouraged them to have an open mind.

“We don’t have a plan right now,” said Paul Schulte, executive director of auxiliary services for the district. “We’re starting from a blank piece of paper.”

Schulte emphasized that the first priority for the study will be determining how to provide the best possible learning environment for students, but the second priority will be honoring the heritage that West High School holds.

The architects, who said they walked through every inch of the school and went to a football game to try and appreciate its spirit, highlighted some of the art-deco stylings on the building’s façade as a potential source of inspiration.

West and Highland High School can only be rebuilt if the school board asks residents to approve a bond —which would the first time the district has asked for a bond since 1999, when voters supported a $136 million spending proposal for renovating, rebuilding and building elementary and middle schools.

At this point, the district and VCBO are working to identify how much space to allocate to each area of the building in order to come up with layout suggestions and cost estimates to guide their ask for a bond in November 2023.

The district paid VCBO $450,000 to conduct the feasibility study. Wednesday’s meeting was the first of a series of public information sessions to be held over the coming months. Listening sessions will be livestreamed and translated into Spanish.

The firm, along with district officials, will meet with teachers and students for a workshop on Nov. 19-20.

The building was retrofitted to be safe during an earthquake during the first wave of a decades-long effort to update all district schools, which began in 1992. Schulte indicated that, if it proves to be the best option, the school could work some of the existing structures into the rebuild.

Schulte, with the architects, took questions and feedback from audience members and said they will continue to respond to questions online.

VCBO has also created an online survey to take comments and questions from the community.

Schulte said West High School will not move to a new site, when asked by a member of the audience about that possibility.

As far as athletic facilities, Schulte promised that “we’re not going to cut corners. Every student who attends school in Salt Lake City deserves to have as quality of a school and facility as any other student in the state of Utah.”

Architects pointed to teachers who need to use swamp coolers and space heaters as examples of how the aging infrastructure makes the building more expensive to operate. One of the goals of the study is to make the school as sustainable as possible, the speakers said, with one suggesting the school could install canopies with solar panels to cover electric buses.

But one parent asked that before the district commits to any plan for a rebuild, leaders provide estimates of the cost to maintain the school, compared to replacing it. Schulte said he would be sure that information was made public at future meetings.

While enrollment at many of the district’s elementary schools is shrinking, West has maintained its population of students. It currently has around 2,700 students, according to bid packets for the project, and the new building will accommodate about 3,000.

“We want a school that will serve the next 100 years of students,” architect Alex Booth said.