Everything changed for St. Mary’s parish church and school on the afternoon of May 22, 2011, when a catastrophic EF-5 tornado swept through the Midwestern community and destroyed the entire parish facilities. It was officially ranked the deadliest tornado in the United States since 1947, and the town was devastated.
The one structure that remained standing was St. Mary’s iconic church cross, which the community embraced as a symbol of hope and courage, says Randy Milbrath of RDG Planning & Design. “It left Father Monaghan and the members of St. Mary’s determined to rebuild a place of safety and peace of mind.”
Local fundraising efforts supported the rebuilding. Once funds were raised, the church was eager to get the project done as quickly as possible to be ready for returning students and parish members in the fall. Along with driving an accelerated schedule, the owners wanted a high-performance, durable structure that could be a safe haven for community members, as well as a dramatic design that would make a distinct visual statement to all who saw it.
These goals led designers to choose a precast concrete design, featuring architectural precast concrete panels embedded with thin brick in a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture. “Architectural precast wall panels on the exterior allowed the new structure of the church and school to be erected quickly, which was a powerful message of hope in a city trying to rebuild much of its retail and institutional buildings all at once,” Milbrath says.
The decision to go with precast concrete for the building’s facade provided durability to the entire building enclosure, which was particularly important to a community rebuilding itself in the wake of disaster. As part of the project, actual Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) storm shelters were incorporated throughout the interior core of the school. “Spaces normally used as corridors and interior rooms of the school have become safe rooms, meeting FEMA standards for the entire school population and church simultaneously,” Milbrath says. The walls of the school were finished smooth and painted, but left exposed in all of the corridors—a request from the school principal for durable wall surfaces as well as a visual reminder of their second purpose.
To achieve the aesthetic goals, the designers included intricate precast concrete detailing on the facades of both buildings, including protruding brick features and areas of exposed precast concrete that simulate what cast stone would look like on a traditional, masonry project. Formliners were used at the base of the school panels to emulate natural split-faced stone.
Working directly with the precast concrete producer early on allowed design, review, and production to proceed on a greatly accelerated schedule to meet the goal of re-opening the school in August of 2014, and the church and parish hall and offices before Christmas of the same year, says Dirk McClure of Enterprise Precast.
Thanks to the use of precast concrete the tight schedule was met, and the school and church now stand as a symbol of the fortitude of Joplin’s citizens, McClure says. “The same iconic cross, that helped inspire the community, continues to stand at its original location. But now, St Mary’s has reestablished itself with a brand new parish and adjacent private Catholic school designed to strengthen not just the parish’s individual identity, but the faith of their great community as a whole.”