If you’ve ever traveled to Worcester, Mass., you’ve seen the Voke. I-290 feeds traffic from the Massachusetts Turnpike into Worcester along Salisbury Street, and the Voke is the first major landmark on the right. Built in 1909—with wings added in 1912 and 1926 to form its iconic U-shaped layout—the facility was known as the Worcester Boys Trade High School until the 1970s, when it merged with the nearby girls’ vocational school and was soon renamed Worcester Vocational High School. Locals began affectionately referring to the school as “the Voke.”
In recent years, that affection had been in short supply. Over time, the student population grew, leading to overcrowding. An infill expansion built to house a new gymnasium made use of the courtyard formed by the U-shaped building. Though the addition eased crowding for a time, it didn’t ‘fit the glove’. The addition cost the school most of its character and all of its green space and, ultimately, proved debilitating to the tiny campus and the structure. Eventually, continued student-body growth made the Voke obsolete. The school moved to a new facility in 2006, leaving the original campus decommissioned and empty.
Worcester’s decades-long challenges from its deindustrialization—familiar to many of the Northeast’s former manufacturing towns—included high unemployment, poverty and urban decay. The Voke became a symbol of these problems: the site a home to squatters and vandals; its empty, broken windows facing the traffic entering the city. The bustling educational center at Worcester’s gateway had become a foreboding monolith offering neither welcome nor promise.
Thankfully, the property enjoyed a major transformation of late—one that many consider to be central to Worcester’s recent renaissance.
From School to Residential Property
Boston-based WinnDevelopment purchased the property in 2008 with an eye toward repurposing the Voke to multifamily residential, founding its hopes on four premises: the city’s dire need for housing, the optimal location of the project in relationship to transit and a retail center, anticipation of an economic revitalization for Worcester, and an ongoing multi-project partnership with Chelsea, Mass.-based design and master planning firm The Architectural Team Inc., a nationally recognized leader in adaptive reuse and historic preservation. Years of experience with innovative design solutions, planning challenges, and tax credit expertise have made the firm’s partnership with WinnDevelopment an industrious and enjoyable win-win scenario.
For more than four decades The Architectural Team has been striving to preserve New England’s architectural legacy, an endeavor most frequently associated with adapting decommissioned mills and factories into multifamily housing, commercial space, mixed use, senior living, and artist live/work space. Like those structures, decommissioned school buildings lend themselves well to residential usage. The large number of windows makes it possible to adapt for multifamily housing while simultaneously achieving a historic tax credit by preserving the structure’s architectural significance.
For the Voke, the development team faced the challenge of addressing the damage done by the single-story metal-and-glass infill gymnasium addition and another expansion for a welding shop. The structure would also need to be made energy efficient and sustainable. Aesthetic challenges included restoring the original masonry and exposed structural elements to their former glory and finding a solution for the windows to recreate the historic appearance.
The infill gymnasium addition had been demolished prior to WinnDevelopment’s purchase of the property as had the non-historic addition housing the school’s welding shop. But rather than improving the site’s appearance, a decision made to pave the courtyard and use it for tractor-trailer storage only contributed to the Voke’s aspect of decay. The redesign called for a landscaped courtyard, as the trade school itself had once boasted, to be enjoyed by residents and visitors.