Hot Springs, Arkansas exploded as a resort destination for northerners, good and notorious, in the 1920s when speakeasies and gambling ruled. That history is told through a rich architecture weaving through steep hills and winding ravines. Exquisite bathhouses and hotels are adorned with towers, each telling a place-defining story. Hot Springs is also home to the state’s only residential High School, The Arkansas School For Math, Sciences, and the Arts (ASMSA). Recently ranked by Newsweek Magazine as the country’s 14th best academic high school, ASMSA offers free education to a student body where 60% qualify for government assistance … ASMSA gives hope. Throughout its 20-year existence, however, the best and brightest were housed in what is essentially an abandoned hospital. The school needed facilities equal to its reputation and story; it needed a defining symbol.
Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects led a master plan team effort that identified new housing’s only logical position on this steep and jagged site: atop an acropolis-like plateau 28 feet above existing buildings, and 60 feet above roads. Because ASMSA has no school district, and thus had to raise the money, the budget was set, and met, at a modest $168.00 per sf.
Based on a cloister, the planning creates a mountaintop shelter. A functional elevator/stair tower links to campus buildings below, giving ASMSA an accessible route, and its own unique tower among a city of towers. It’s stained wood roof, (a key local industry) glows like a lighthouse in tall trees. Its inverted roof shape emulates an open book, held lightly by a fingerlike structure … it is a beacon on the hill; a tower of education.
Two distinct courtyards, private above and public below, replace abandoned hospital parking. The upper Student Court’s glass “living room” pavilion is sheltered between housing wings, yet encourages students to see and be seen. The lower public Tower Court’s new quad and stage/theater socially connects “town to gown” for the first time. The architecture presents two distinct images: a formal city presence facing the school’s historic chapel (auditorium) and convent (classrooms), and a modern, open presence facing future campus expansion. The pavilion, campus library, three-story atrium, and circulation tower visually and physically intertwine, creating a community-centered campus heart. Light is the theme, keying together space and spirit. Single-sloped roofs channel rain to upper rain gardens, offering experiential education opportunities. Exposed structural elements display the science of building, and the art of architecture. In this sense, the building becomes a teacher.