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This month, the Little Rock branch of the Federal Reserve Bank reopened – not to service bank customers, but students. The e-Stem High Public Charter School started its semester last Monday in two newly-renovated buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

But that’s nothing new for this innovative school. Two years ago, they chose a former newspaper building as their first campus. The downtown school quickly had a waiting list of over 1,000 students, which was far more than they could accommodate.  

Southern Bancorp CDC, which has provided renovation assistance and financing to other public schools, bought the old Federal Reserve Bank in 2009 and is now leasing the building to e-Stem Public Charter Schools. Despite mechanical and plumbing obstacles, the building’s proximity, historic finishes, and ability to be renovated to fit current educational needs made it a perfect fit for e-Stem’s expansion.  

Originally constructed by Thompson & Harding Architects over a period of nine months at a cost of $217,000, the bank building was located next to the Gem Theater. After burning in 1929, the rebuilt three-story concrete framed and brick structure became known as the Gem building. The Federal Reserve purchased the Gem Building in 1959, moving in their old records and creating a secure entrance for loading and unloading currency.  

Architect John Greer of Witsell Evans Rasco renovated the 49,693-square-foot building into a 21st century educational space that includes a chemistry lab, physics lab, art room, media center (library), and a multi-purpose room/cafeteria. The building also offers a wireless network and classrooms equipped with four computer workstations and built-in audiovisual systems. In addition to installing new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, historic materials such as plaster ornamentation, marble floors, and column wainscoting have been restored. Windows that were once bricked-in now offer natural lighting in each classroom throughout the day.  

Greer says that the school plans to take advantage of the historic architecture. “It’s just a great building for the kids. It’s got a lot of architectural details for them to enjoy and the school plans to take advantage of that by offering classes in architecture and photography.”  

To utilize these historic buildings, unique solutions had to be found. Because there’s no gym within the new building, the school is partnering with a local college to use their gymnasium. And while there is not enough room for a prep kitchen, students will enjoy their locally-catered lunches in a cafeteria that doubles as a multi-purpose room.  

The location couldn’t be better for working parents, as it’s located in downtown Little Rock. The students will be able to take advantage of the central library (just three blocks away) and the nearby Robinson Music Center Auditorium. It’s a true community-centered school.  

According to Greer, one of the biggest challenges was creatively incorporating new technology and systems while keeping the historic ceilings exposed. Because many of the modifications made over the past few years had to be torn out, the asbestos abatement was easier than originally anticipated. Another problem was configuring the classrooms. Typical spacing between supporting columns isn’t as conducive to classrooms as a building designed specifically for educational purposes, but the school was flexible and able to change their program to fit the sizes of the rooms in some cases.  

During the dedication ceremony, President of Southern Bancorp CDC John French said, “We hope that it contributes to the success of the high school students who will study here and furthers the redevelopment of downtown Little Rock and the Main Street area.”  

Approximately 375 students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades will occupy the buildings for the 2010-11 school year. Next year, the charter school will add the 12th grade, bringing the total combined enrollment up to 500 students.  

Hopefully, the creativity that went into renovating the space will inspire the students at e-Stem Public Charter School to be equally creative during their school career – and beyond.