PLY+ and MPR Arquitectos are transforming a historic Detroit building into a school
PLY+ and MPR Arquitectos have transformed a former Catholic college building into a school at Marygrove Primary School, filling it with colors and shapes that help spark “experimentation and exploration” among children.
Located in northwest Detroit, the building is part of Marygrove School, a new educational institution that will eventually serve students in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12). The curriculum places particular emphasis on engineering and social justice.
The school occupies the site of a former seminary, Marygrove College, which closed in 2019. The campus — listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places — is now owned and managed by a non-profit organization, the Marygrove Conservancy.
Several buildings on the 53-acre (21 ha) campus are being converted into facilities for the school at Marygrove.
This project involved converting a brick concrete building that first opened in 1941 into a public elementary school for children from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The design was led by PLY+, a studio based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and MPR Arquitectos, based in Ann Arbor and Murcia, Spain.
Both companies are headed by professors at the University of Michigan’s Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
The architects aimed to preserve original features in the 65,000 sq ft (6,039 sq m) building while incorporating a range of new elements.
The goal was to “create a foundational and collaborative learning environment” while preserving historical components.
The exterior of the building was kept intact, the only change being the addition of an accessible entrance.
Inside the building, the team modified rooms and added new finishes and plywood millwork. The décor was carefully chosen, and special details – such as visually dynamic roof parapets – were incorporated.
The original layout of the building has been mostly retained, as the double-aisle layout was considered to be of historical interest and was kept in place.
The corridor received new storage nooks with places for bags, coats and shoes. In the classrooms, the team introduced tables, sinks, chairs, chalkboards and storage space.
“Custom millwork elements provide design flexibility without affecting historic elements,” the team said.
The project also called for the creation of maker spaces, reading rooms, a media center, and a restorative justice center. The existing gym has been renovated.
Throughout the facility, the team used a mix of soft and bold colors, ranging from light peach to pale yellow and green.
The team said the painting was inspired by historical colors and the desire to present colors that indicated “the new use of the building and the new model of pedagogy that is being promoted.”
“Color and shape play an important role in creating unique identities for individual classrooms and indicate the liveliness and fun of collaborative learning,” the team added.
Overall, the design aims to speak to its young users.
The team said: “The design attracts children’s sense of curiosity and encourages experimentation and exploration.”
The project was a collaboration between the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which runs the school, and the University of Michigan College of Education.
Other school projects include a sports center at an Oregon school featuring trellises decorated with climbing vines and a boarding school in Southern California with buildings with rough surfaces.
Photography by Jason Kane.
structural engineer: PLY+ and MPR Arquitectos
Team + Play: Craig Borum, Jean Maigret, Andrew Walking, Yusei Cha, Olaya Chevet Amigo, Yibo Jiao, Masataka Yoshikawa
MPR Architects Team: Ana Morcillo-Pallares, John Rule
Engineer of record: Integrated design solutions
client: Marygrove Reserve
Collaborators: Detroit Public Schools, University of Michigan College of Education