March 2024

Tampa Heights Elementary Magnet School

Hurricane Irma made landfall in September 2017, and the devastation in its path caused damage to properties along the coast in Florida. The city of Tampa lost electricity for a time, and when power was restored to the community, the historic Tampa Heights Elementary Magnet School went up in flames.

Built in 1906 by a group of volunteers, the September 2017 fire caused significant damage to the roof, and the brick and wood facade of the three-story structure. After sitting exposed to the elements for over a year, it continued to deteriorate and was ultimately condemned.

The Tampa community rallied to rebuild the school, and with the support of Hillsborough County Public Schools, JE Dunn Construction, along with FleischmanGarciaMaslowski architects, were brought in to make the necessary renovations to restore the historical building. 

An elaborate vertical brace system was installed on the outside of the structure to support the brick facade. Then, the floor and roof structure was demolished from the inside and rebuilt from the inside out. The building demolition was originally going to be done from the inside, but it was quickly determined that it was unsafe to do so. Intermittent collapses of the structure were dangerous. Demolition had to take place without going inside, using boom lifts to remove materials piece by piece.

“Essentially, we built it backwards,” said John Shea, senior superintendent with JE Dunn.

The second and third floors of the school had hardwood flooring, and some of that material was reused when possible, including as an accent wall in the building’s entryway that serves as the backdrop for a monumental staircase.

With over 130 floor-to-ceiling windows in the brick facade, maintaining a historical look was a challenge. A custom-designed window that matched the original muttons and sashes and the original look of the building were installed.

The brick was also in a bad state of deterioration, Shea said, but a large portion of it that was removed was able to be cleaned and repurposed.

“We took all the old brick out and hand-picked what was usable,” Shea said. “We had a crew of 10 guys out there for weeks cleaning brick and palletizing them in order to infill the areas of the building that were damaged. They cleaned over 60,000 bricks.”

The project was the first for JE Dunn and Hillsborough County schools. The big payoff, Shea said, was watching school faculty arrive when the building was reopened.

“It’s turned out to be my favorite project,” Shea said. “I wasn’t very excited about it at first, but knowing the history of it and seeing the stories, and being able to share this with the community has been pretty great.”

The school went from what seemed like a haunted mansion originally built in 1906 and had become dilapidated and exposed to the elements into a brand new building. The facelift, Shea said, is apparent when looking at the school now, but most of the effort was put into what you won’t see.

The finished product was an award-winning one, receiving: the ASUM 2022 Outstanding Design Award for Educational Interiors; the Jan Abell Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community; the Learning by Design Fall 2022 Architectural and Interior Design Award of Excellence; the ENR 2020 ‘Best K-12 Project’ Award; the ENR 2021 ‘Best of Best’ Award; the ASUM 2021 Citation award winner for school modernization; and was named a Florida Educational Facilities Planners’ Association 2024 Architectural Showcase Winner in the elementary school category.