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The Wheeler School
Providence, Rhode Island

by Jay Emperor, RLA, Project Manager, Pressley Associates, Landscape Architects, Cambridge, Mass.

The transformation of the courtyard was accomplished without sacrificing the largest tree on site, a venerable oak about half a century old.
Photographer for Wheeler School feature: Lynne Damianos, Damianos Photography

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The Wheeler School, founded in 1889, is an independent co-educational day school in Providence, Rhode Island. The school accommodates about 800 students (nursery age through 12th grade), and is known for its extraordinary academic curriculum. (Editor's note: Two prestigious academic institutions are a stroll away--Brown University, a three-block walk, and the Rhode Island School of Design, a five block promenade!)

The new center campus landscape construction was carefully coordinated between the Wheeler School, Pressley Associates Landscape Architects and Shawmut Construction. Ambitious in design and scheduling (two years for construction), the center campus comprises gathering space for upper school students; table seating/outdoor dining adjacent to the student union; open space for recreation and games; state-of-the-art play equipment; wood play structures; and a synthetic turf field for ball playing.

Back in 2005, the new leadership for Wheeler School had a vision for a more inviting, attractive and accessible campus. The campus had mismatched paving and site furnishings, obsolete play equipment, and a lack of continuity in signage, lighting and campus unifying elements. As with many institutions, new construction, building additions and site repairs impact outdoor spaces, but seldom is there an opportunity to take a comprehensive look at all of the exterior spaces on a campus. The Wheeler School seized that opportunity. New buildings and spatial programming needs were anticipated, and fundraising efforts increased. In response to a comprehensive campus master plan, the Wheeler School initiated landscape improvements that transformed the campus. The new project addressed the outdoor environment and created a more inviting and attractive low-maintenance campus.

Wire-cut "Heartland Flashed" brick pavers (Boral Bricks) have refreshed the look of the Wheeler School central courtyard. The soft, diffuse lighting of the HW Patina post tops (Louis Poulsen) specified for the campus was first designed for an upscale housing area in suburb Copenhagen when higher levels of illumination were demanded.

Comprised of several projects, ranging from new construction to site restoration, the highlight for this community school is the newly constructed Center Campus landscape. Construction planning was carefully coordinated between Wheeler, Pressley Associates Landscape Architects and Shawmut Construction. The complexity of reorganizing the campus core required two years of construction, while maintaining an active, safe educational environment. Ambitious in design and scheduling, the Center Campus comprises several distinct areas: gathering space for upper school students, table seating/outdoor dining adjacent to the student union; open space for recreation and games; state-of-the-art play equipment; wood play structures; and a synthetic turf field for ball playing.

The central campus recreational area incorporates a large synthetic lawn (Field Turf Tarkett) with two adjacent playground areas. The larger playground offers state-of-the-art Goric equipment (Berliner line), including such elements as four triangular system nets, curved poly super slide, plastic panels, flexible "Flubber" climbing wall, hammock, Flo-Flex membrane climbing wall, spider net and hand-over-hand flexible ladder/loops.

Very popular with the students is the synthetic lawn play surfacing, used for two areas of the campus. Clean, level and mud free, the surfacing allows extension of the recreational season for additional months of outdoor play, while reducing maintenance and replacement costs associated with high-use grass recreational fields.

Adding to the character of the campus are several mature trees that were integrated into the new design. A sloped area below a large maple was planted as a wonderful learning space for science classes. A majestic oak brings shade to a student gathering space.

A colorful basketball court on the lower east side of the campus has four glass backboards (Bison) The court abuts another synthetic lawn play area. Black metal fencing unifies the campus and provides security for the play area.

With 800 students walking the grounds, it made sense to specify sturdy, low maintenance plants. (Editor's note: If you haven't been by an elementary school lately when it's recess, you may have forgotten what a bundle of energy and exuberance is on display. A cacophony of shrieks and squeals fill the air. Kids run to and fro, pluck at plants, dig holes, investigate what's under a rock, etc. Now if one could just capture their vitality and organically pass it on to those millions of adults who drag themselves out of bed in the morning and prepare for another work day... that would be something.)

Another noteworthy feature of the comprehensive design was a completely accessible campus, achieved through the installation of additional ramps and properly graded walkways and paved surfaces.

The statue by the basketball court is in remembrance of Leland Philip Weingeroff, a fourth grader at the Wheeler School who died in a private plane crash in 2005 along with his parents, Gregg and Dawn Weingeroff. The plaque on the statue reads: "In loving memory of my grandson Leland Philip Weingeroff for his love of the game of basketball."

East Campus Rec Area
Equally striking as the improvements to the Center Campus landscape, were the changes undertaken on Wheeler's east campus recreational area. E. Turgeon Construction managed the ambitious, fast-track construction. This space of underused tennis courts was transformed by creation of a synthetic lawn play area, basketball courts, outdoor dining, a curvilinear concrete amphitheater-like seating wall and space for outdoor teaching.

A new garden reception space nestled adjacent to two school-owned residences has extensive landscape lighting created for small events. Lush landscaping now lines the new pathways in this beautiful park-like setting.

The underused tennis courts on the east side of the campus (before image, top image) were transformed into a synthetic lawn play area, basketball courts, contemporary outdoor seating, a curvilinear concrete amphitheater-like seating wall and space for
outdoor teaching.

Foundation plantings include formal hedging and colorful perennials. Unused space was converted into much-needed faculty and ride-share parking.

While each campus space has its own identity, Pressley Associates designed for a continuity of materials: wire-cut brick paving, granite and bluestone paving and walls, classic black iron fencing and contemporary seating elements.

Bollard lights and contemporary pedestrian pole fixtures bring a soft glow on all walking surfaces. Uplighting accents the mature and newly planted large caliper trees. Lighting also highlights a facade's tiled mosaic. Each of these design elements strengthen the image and character of the Wheeler School and unify the east campus with the core center campus.

The children are leaving their four-square/hop-scotch play area and traversing granite stepping-stones to the Science Garden.

Project's Significance
Dan Miller, PhD, the head of school, recently remarked that one of the best decisions he has made for the campus was to hire a landscape architect to focus on school's outdoor spaces and learning environment. The campus enhancements are evident and uplifting, connecting distinct campus spaces with a sense of cohesiveness and unity through common design elements.

The improvements were initiated in 2005 after completion of a campus master plan and receipt of a significant gift for capital projects and financial aid. The gift was a catalyst for increased support for the "Campaign for Wheeler: Be Exceptional." Over the course of the next two years, the school raised more than $21 million for capital building projects, student financial aid and the faculty salary endowment. The campaign's success has rejuvenated the campus with the design of new outdoor courtyards and recreational areas, allowing the children to interact, play and expand their social and physical growth. The outdoor spaces allow the teachers to extend their classrooms to the outdoors, and give faculty and alumni the space to celebrate special occasions.

The courtyard is a vibrant, safe and attractive transition environment between classes. Seat walls of "College Blend" waterstruck brick pavers (Morin Brick Co.) are capped with bluestone. Rectangular granite blocks in the courtyard offer nontraditional seating options. Shrubbery by the u-shaped seat wall is yew (Taxus baccata 'Repandens'), Rhododendron 'Chionoides', Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) macrophylla, Hosta sieboldiana and Liriope spicata. An existing Japanese maple (left) and ornamental cherry tree (right) decorate this niche of the building.

Role of the Landscape Architect
The landscape architect worked with the head of school, administrators, educators, students and parents to achieve the goals established by the Wheeler community. The school's goal was to develop an educational environment conducive to learning and making students and educators feel at home. The landscape architect led goal-setting workshops, conducted faculty interviews, and produced and tested multiple concepts to arrive at the best campus design solutions.

Plant material selections were discussed with the school's science department. Indigenous rocks were hand-selected from school-owned fields and woodlands by the landscape architect, with the assistance of a geology teacher.

The grade school staff took field trips to view play equipment installations to better guide their selections.

Design elements and materials established in earlier work by the firm were used throughout the campus to unify the environment.

A smaller playground for the younger set offers a "Playwood" playhouse (Henderson Recreational Equip.), sandbox, hopscotch and four-square games and a basketball hoop. The playground safety surfacing for both playground is rubber tiles (EURO FLEX, Kraiburg Relastec).

Landscape enhancements to the East Campus recreational area were completed in 2007 with a construction budget of $1,100,000. Landscape enhancements to the main campus, covering about 45,000 sq. ft., were completed in 2009. The construction budget was $1,500,000.


Pressley Associates Landscape Architects
The Wheeler School - Project Team, Vendors and Materials

The Team

Landscape Architect: Pressley Associates, Landscape Architects, Cambridge, Mass. Jay Emperor, Project Manager.
Project Owner: The Wheeler School, Providence, RI
Architect: Ann Beha Architects, Boston, MA
Architect: Ed Wocjik Architects, Providence, RI
Construction Manager: E. Turgeon Construction, Cranston, RI
Construction Manager: Shawmut Design & Construction, Providence, RI
Civil Engineer: Crossman Engineering, Warwick, RI
Irrigation Engineer: Michael Melhem, General Irrigation Engineering.

The official Wheeler School seal was created in 1945-46 by noted artist/calligrapher John Howard Benson.


Boral Bricks, Inc. "Heartland Flashed"
Morin Brick Co. Water Struck "College Blend" Pavers
Spaulding Brick Co.: Brick Pavers

Glen Hilton Products: Rain Sensor Device
Hunter Industries
Netafim: Dripper Line/Fittings, Flushing/Air/Vacuum Relief Valves
Rainbird: Controller, Inline Pressure Regulator, Drip Zone Electric Control Valve
The Toro Co., Irrigation division, Riverside, CA.
Weathermatic Division

Gardco: Spotlight
Greenlee Lighting: Tree down lights, Bullet Series
Louis Poulsen: Pedestiran Type 1 "HW Patina"
Kim Lighting: Uplights, Model No. LTV10

Playground Equipment
Bison Inc: Basketball Goals, Glass Backboards
Goric: Berliner line, many components
Henderson Recreational Equipment: "Playwood" & Sand Box
Kraiburg Relastec: EURO FLEX rubber tile safety surfacing

Site Furnishings
Iron Wood: Fencing
Landscape Forms: Benches ("Austin"), Tables & Chairs ("Carousel")

Northeast Turf
Synthetic Turf: Field Turf Tarkett

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November 20, 2019, 1:42 pm PDT

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