Class project

Even by their own measure, Joe Sullivan and Gary Bruck had a slim shot at designing the multimillion-dollar renovation project for Columbus School for Girls.

After all, their Downtown firm, Sullivan Bruck Architects, had never done work on an education project. Top that off with their proposal to the school: Instead of a $6 million, modest rehabilitation and expansion of old buildings, Sullivan and Bruck suggested the school demolish most of its buildings and start over — to the tune of $8 million, a 33 percent increase.

Against the odds, however, they did get the job, and several years later, another multimillion-dollar project at one of CSG’s competitors: The Columbus Academy.

They did it by capitalizing on the two private schools’ concerns about marketing themselves and projecting the best possible image in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

CSG’s 1990 expansion and renovation needs weren’t just to provide more space for students or upgrade aging facilities.

“I think what we began to do is look at our existing facility obviously with an eye toward creating a campus that would reflect the philosophy and values of our school in a way that our existing school did not,” says Patricia Hayot, head of school for CSG. “In any marketing challenge, you articulate in a more refined way what you stand for.”

The private school also faced a factor common to any business — competition. Around the time of CSG’s project, Columbus Academy, the local private school for boys, announced it would go co-ed.

Sullivan Bruck’s opportunity to take on the project came through a recommendation from a CSG board member who was a Sullivan Bruck client.

Hiring us was going out on a limb for the people who made that decision,” admits Bruck, referring to the firm’s lack of experience in that realm.

What made up for the shortfall was Sullivan Bruck’s work on residential projects and classical detailing.

“What we were building was something much more beyond pencils and books and blackboards,” Hayot says. “We were building a community and wanted someone who really had vision and a sense of creativity … who could help us develop this.”

Sullivan Bruck suggested the project focus on the school’s old mansion. Even though it was the gateway for new and prospective students because it conveyed the image of the school, it wasn’t even visible from the street. Sullivan and Bruck wanted to make the mansion the school’s focus and create more of a campus with new buildings.

“We thought Columbus School for Girls was a lot closer to a school of higher education than it was a typical school campus,” Sullivan says.

In the end, the project worked, especially from a marketing standpoint.

“We had thought that we might lose some enrollment when Academy went co-ed,” Hayot says. “That wasn’t sustained at all. Within a year and a half, we had exceeded our enrollment’s highest level ever.”

Although she points out that buildings don’t define an organization, the renovation and expansion project has allowed CSG to better fit its image.

“”We have a sense of community here, a great sense of light, a sense of style, a sense of rigor. There are spaces that invite you in, and that’s what learning is about,” she says.

Nearly 10 years later, when Columbus Academy needed to expand, Sullivan Bruck got the nod on that project, too.

“We also needed a building that made kind of a statement of welcome to the outside community,” says Academy Headmaster John M. Mackenzie. “If you drove up to campus prior to this building being built, you would not know where the front door was.”

Again, the door of opportunity was opened for Sullivan Bruck by an existing client and school board member.

Sullivan Bruck designed a new administration building that made a square of the existing three buildings on the campus and tied everything together with a Georgian architecture flair to help Columbus Academy make a statement of quality and character.

“We can’t trace enrollment back to a building, but I can say the last couple of years this building has been in existence have been the two best admissions years in the history of the school,” Mackenzie says, adding that attrition is low and contributions to the school are at an all-time high.

The experiences with the two schools encouraged Sullivan and Bruck to do marketing of their own to expand beyond their traditional work.

“We have started to pursue some public institutions and have been short-listed for a couple of projects,” Sullivan says.

The hurdle, of course, is the firm’s lack of experience in various areas.

“I don’t view our firm as having limits,” Bruck says. “The difficulty is convincing the outside.” How to reach: Sullivan Bruck Architects, 464-9800 or www.sbarch.com; Gary Bruck, [email protected]; Joe Sullivan, [email protected]; Patricia Hayot, Columbus School for Girls, 252-0781; John M. Mackenzie, Columbus Academy, 475-2311

Joan Slattery Wall ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.