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St. Mark’s Episcopal School
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

St. Mark's Episcopal School is the only private school in the affluent community of West University Place near Houston, Texas. The school started as an educational ministry of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in the 1960s, beginning as a nursery school and gradually adding elementary grades to eighth grade. The first eighth grade class graduated in 1998, and, two years later, the school was accredited by the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools, recognized by the Texas Education Agency.

As St. Mark's enrollment grew, so did its need for more amenities for students. St. Mark's campus, however, didn't offer much room for growth, so additions to the campus needed to be well-planned. The campus was comprised of a church building, a fellowship hall that served both the school and the church, and classroom buildings.

School leadership wanted to add a gymnasium with room for additional classrooms and administrative offices. The school had acquired a lab building next door and wanted to renovate it for middle school classrooms.

Leadership also wanted to create a new lower school building and build a separate entrance for the school apart from the church that would also enhance security. Walking between the buildings would need to be encouraged by adding walkways.

Because St. Mark's campus was made up of separate buildings, it offered the perfect groundwork for a series of courtyards to connect the buildings. Placing the new gymnasium in one corner of the campus would connect to the middle school building on one end and to another classroom building on the other, closing in the campus on one side.

A separate lower school building on the opposite end of the campus would close in the other side of campus. Walkways were placed around and through the courtyard, many of which were covered.

A new bell tower entrance for the school was added to the Parish Hall, with covered walkways leading directly to the school offices inside. To make room for the expansions, two one-story buildings would need to be removed.

The new buildings would be designed to complement the school's "Country Gothic" style. A terrace at front of the church and a new cloister from the church to the middle school were also included in the design to tie the church and school together.

"That made the church much more inviting," architect Bill Merriman says.

The first project the school tackled was the 30,000-square-foot gymnasium with classrooms and administrative space. The old lab building was also renovated for additional classrooms and offices. A few years later, St. Mark's built the 25,000-square-foot lower school. An adjacent classroom building was also renovated for preschool classrooms. And, a new front entrance for the school was also created.

The buildings framed a series of courtyard that were interconnected by walkways. These courtyards provided outdoor rooms that the school could use for educational or social gatherings.

Since much of the construction would have to be done while school was in session, the construction team planned the schedule so that the heavy work, such as the steel erection, was done over the summer when students were out. A fence was built around the construction site for safety but small windows were cut out of the fence at different heights allowing students the opportunity to see how the new building was progressing.

"That made the whole process kind of an adventure to the kids, a real learning experience," Merriman says.

St. Mark's Episcopal School now occupies four main buildings on campus that include three computer labs, two libraries, two complete science rooms, a gymnasium and stage, a multipurpose cafeteria, a music room, an art room, and plenty of large, bright classroom spaces. The beautiful courtyard and gardens, including a prayer labyrinth, are well used by students for lunch and outdoor lessons.

"That's one of the things that's so pleasant about the school," Merriman says. "It's kind of a hidden gem. You don't realize it until you get back into the school area but it's like a whole other world in there."

Merriman Holt Architects, based in Houston, Texas, is made up of a carefully selected team with a balanced blend of design and technical expertise, www.merrimanholt.com.

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