A Community Aims High

Somerville High School
Somerville, Massachusetts

Somerville High School faced a unique problem: founded in 1852, the school had begun to show its limitations in sustaining a modern urban education. Thus, the building's age and central location encouraged the City of Somerville to embark on a complex journey of planning, visioning, and design.

"The process starts with an important strategic question," said Tony Pierantozzi, former Somerville School Superintendent. "What is education in the 21st century?"

After intensive research, the City was able to map out a comprehensive response - students required a flexible, diverse, and evolving learning experience. The City needed to 1) creatively expand student learning horizons far beyond the classroom, and 2) create a school designed with the resources, educational environments, and technology to prepare each student for future success.

The SMMA planning and design team translated the shared ideas, aspirations, and future vision of the Somerville community into a multi-building urban design solution that reimagines and rebuilds the high school while transforming its historic Central Hill campus.

Creating a New Central Hill Campus

Somerville High School occupies one of the most visible and distinctive sites in the city, perched at the apex of Central Hill on Highland Avenue. SMMA conducted a long-range master plan for the entire Central Hill campus to provide a foundation for integrating the new school with new recommendations.


The new plan includes improved circulation, parking, open space, pedestrian movement, and building access and egress points. It also forms a relationship between the site’s buildings; the high school established an education concourse on the east side, and City Hall and the Library created a historic civic concourse on the west side.


the existing Somerville High School arches

Education Through Preservation

The new Somerville High School commemorates its history while modernizing its architecture:

  • It preserves the original 1895 school and the front of the 1929 War Memorial Building. Two 1929 additions, the existing auditorium, and boiler plant will be demolished for new construction. New athletic fields will be built behind the 1895 building.

  • Historic archways will be relocated inside of the new building; one prominently outside of the school’s computer-aided design lab and art studios to serve as an educational architecture reference.

  • Nestled into the rear of Central Hill, its front is integrated with the 1929 War Memorial Building and the 1986 Field House. The main entrance establishes an identity and focal point, blending the old and new.


the new Somerville High School

“The demolition of the 1929 additions will reveal original architecture details unseen for 100 years,” notes Alex Pitkin, Senior Vice President at SMMA. “This is a gorgeous, classic institutional building on both sides, and was designed to be viewed that way when it opened back in the 1800s.”

Weaving the Traditional and Vocational

The new high school will prompt interaction between traditionally-separated worlds. A strategic placement of specialized learning spaces connects the college-bound academic program with the hands-on culture of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. The school’s CTE studies include culinary arts, automotive technology, electrical trade, graphic design, architecture and engineering health and dental programs, among others. The school will also include public-facing services such as a student-run restaurant and bistro, a hair cutting salon, health services, and auto repair bays.

A Future of Sustainability

Behind the high school at the bottom of Central Hill, a new MBTA Green Line station named Gilman Square will contribute to fulfilling a greener future. In addition to helping relieve traffic and parking pressures, the state and the MBTA are planning to build a bike path that will parallel 6-7 rail stations including the new stop.

The school itself promotes health, wellness, and energy efficiency. Daylight reaches as many of the classrooms, study areas, labs, and common areas as possible. A solar panel array operates year-round on the roof of the new building. Water conservation, efficient mechanical systems, and LED lighting with smart sensor controls are integrated within the building systems. Bike storage is available to staff and students, and preferred parking with a charging station is available for electric and battery-powered vehicles.

Celebrating Diversity

To gain a better understanding of what Somerville’s students value, SMMA team members met in 2017 with a focus group of 50 students. The conversation served as a starting point; it sparked an idea for a photo and visual media competition to invite students to express their experiences via words and images.

The dialogue revealed that students considered the acceptance of individuals regardless of nationality, race, gender, primary language, and cultural identity to be essential to the fabric of Somerville High School. They also enthusiastically lauded the welcoming nature of their City through diverse festivals, food, and local small businesses

After engaging the students, SMMA’s Graphic Design team used the knowledge gathered to inform the imagery for the high school’s environmental graphics, speaking to the themes of inclusivity and community. Through 4,000 SF of graphics situated in visible "nooks" of the school, the team aimed to showcase the community's pride in diversity. Using a visual concept of "intersections," education was further extended beyond the classroom by illustrating how different disciplines weave together such as art and science, culinary and culture, and language and history.

“We function as a community with multiple languages, cuisines, financial statuses, and citizen statuses. We accept those who offer themselves to be an active community member and add to the city's unique flavor.”

Patrick Raffery

Somerville High School student