Entry and exterior of Clarksdale Collegiate at night

A Mississippi School Models Collaborative Reuse

Architect Jonathan Tate applies his firm’s successful formula to the design of a Clarksdale elementary school.

Few public schools are known for having thoughtful design, especially in places as historically underserved as Clarksdale, Mississippi. But can a school building also fuel hope in efforts to rebuild the community around it? That is an additional goal of the Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School building by the Office of Jonathan Tate (OJT), which makes it worthy of a close examination.

The project is partly adaptive reuse of an existing church that the charter school began to take over starting in 2018; and it’s partly a ground up new, two-story addition next to that, which was completed in 2021 on a formerly unused 4.8 acre tract.

OJT is spreading its special brand of urban infill beyond Louisiana.

Aerial of Clarksdale Collegiate during day

Like the community leaders who found themselves working around a failing school district to create a more rigorous charter school, OJT has a history of improving under-appreciated sites in ways that can still feel useful, welcoming, and familiar to longtime residents.

“I spent time in Clarksdale, the Home of the Blues, but also in Memphis before I started my firm in New Orleans,” says namesake principal Jonathan Tate explaining his fondness for the Delta region.

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As a co-developer of other regional projects with Pierre Stouse and Chuck Rutledge, including Clarksdale’s Travelers Hotel, Tate has mastered a kind of modern but still contextual infill that works in the region.

In New Orleans, a roughly five hour drive from Clarksdale, he has a body of built work to prove it: a spate of housing projects are visible around the city (including Tate’s own residence) two of which have won the American Institute of Architects housing awards (the St. Thomas/Ninth project in 2017, and Bastion Veterans Housing in 2021).

Aerial of Clarksdale Collegiate entrance
Clarksdale Collegiate courtyard and outdoor corridor with flowering tree

OJT used many hallmarks of those projects to make Clarksdale’s K-6 campus feel fresh but also downhome. That’s possibly a sign that OJT is beginning to spread its signature architecture across the Delta almost like a new regional vernacular.

Like the New Orleans housing, the school stands out for its residential siding, asymmetrical rooflines, thoughtful formation of outdoor courtyards, and massing that mimics what’s already there; in this case, the existing church.

Clustered closely, the new and existing buildings almost seem to embrace. Even the “up/down of the roof forms is in dialogue with existing spaces,” according to the firm’s brief. It’s a device OJT relies on to create harmony between new and old.

And though this is OJT’s first education project, it is a strong indicator the firm is successfully spreading its special brand of urban infill beyond Louisiana.

Library with students reading at Clarksdale Collegiate
Yellow painted hallway at Clarksdale Collegiate

OJT’s body of work and regional impact are remarkable for a firm that’s just a decade old. Then again, Tate is virtually embedded in the region, given he has bought a home in New Orleans and teaches at the Tulane School of Architecture. Ever the citizen architect, he also donates services on small local projects — some of which provided him with insights into the technical considerations of K-12 education before he landed the Clarksdale commission.

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