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Middlesex School is powering up old plant — for music

The recently completed Rachel Carson Music and Campus Center at the Middlesex School. CBT Architects

When the Middlesex School in Concord decided to become more energy efficient and convert from oil to natural gas, the 100-year-old steam plant building became obsolete.

But it turns out the massive structure and construction type, once appropriate to house large boilers, had ideal acoustics for music. So rather than tear it down, school officials and planners redesigned the building around the old smoke stack and turned it into a new focal point on campus as the Rachel Carson Music and Campus Center.

“The stack is part of the story about the transition away from this building into something that’s academic and sustainable,’’ said Paul Viccica, principal of Boston-based CBT Architects, and leader and of its academic design group. “Part of the story here is that the building has transformed itself.’’


The independent day and boarding high school is in the midst of a campus transformation to modernize century-old buildings while staying true to its New England charm and character.

Middlesex School was founded in 1901 on 350 acres of farmland and wetlands. Its campus was designed by the Olmsted Brothers Firm, which in an earlier incarnation created landscapes such as Central Park in New York, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and the grounds of the US Capitol and White House.

School officials started working with CBT in 2010 on a master plan for the campus that would meet the current needs of the students but also fit in with the Olmsted green space design.

“We have a gem of a campus,’’ said Kathy Giles, head of school at Middlesex. “When you have a facility like this, the issue is about stewardship. These 100-year-old buildings don’t take care of themselves. They’re expansive and leaky.’’

Viccica said the planning process involved analyzing existing facilities and finding ways to utilize them in a broader way. While the campus is large, the core space for buildings is compact and restricted because of wetlands.


“They were not interested in tearing down old buildings and building new ones,’’ he said. “They had this incredible building stock but over the course of their history the curriculum has changed and their view was can we repurpose rather than tear down?’’

After the planning process, Viccica said officials decided to focus on one new residential building and redesigning space for the music and performing arts programs.

In September 2016, Middlesex completed construction on the Landry House, the first residence hall to be built on Middlesex’s campus in 60 years, adding 36 beds along with three faculty apartments. The 20,000 square-foot residence hall is marked with period detail inside and out, mirroring the campus’ classic, New England aesthetic.

For the arts, Middlesex has a large music program that was operating out of the basement of the library. The theater building is 40 years old and outdated, without space for dressing rooms, for example.

Rather than build new, officials came up with the idea to reuse the old steam plant for a $13 million music center.

“We’ve got a 150-person recital hall that used to store oil boilers,’’ Giles said. “It’s pretty fun.’’

The Spanish department is also located in the Carson Center, along with a large gathering space called the Winter Garden, which is designed to be a sunny, warm place in February. The Winter Garden is built around the old smoke stack.


“The steam system was so inefficient the smoke stack is clean as a whistle on the inside,’’ Giles said. “We opened a hole in the bottom with a Plexiglass sheet that tells the story of the steam plant and transformation.’’

The building has a geo-thermal heat and cooling system, a green roof, and ionized glass that tints to help control internal temperature.

And now, the $24 million theater/visual and performing arts center is under construction. The school’s arts program was previously located in a mid-century facility that was in need of refiguring, updating, expansion, and general improvement. This building is being renovated and expanded up and down due to constraints on the footprint, Giles said.

“We want this building to honor the work that our kids are doing in theater but we don’t want to build the next Wang Center at Middlesex School,’’ she said.

The space will have a theater that fits 450 people. It will house the art history classrooms and a mindfulness studio, similar to a yoga studio but space for desks. The outside space will have a courtyard and labyrinth. One building will be taken down to make way for a new visual arts wing.

Giles said it has been a challenge to balance the history of the campus while meeting current day learning needs, but she’s happy with the outcome.

“We wanted the buildings to maintain their character and feel but wanted them to be safe, modern and comfortable,’’ she said. “There is a stewardship component to keeping these places to their original purpose and vision and that doesn’t involve lots of luxuries. They aren’t Taj Mahals but great spaces for people making art and learning.’’


The interior of the new Rachel Carson Center at the Middlesex School in Concord.Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at