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There’s nothing little about the red schoolhouse on the far North Side.
Built of nearly a million bricks, each laid by hand, the new campus of Cornerstone Christian Schools might be as colossal as the megachurch that started the school in 1991.
The private, Christian school, run by Cornerstone Church, was designed to hold 3,600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It took four years to complete at a cost $100 million and opened in 2017.
The school is a sight to behold. If the site looks more like a college campus without the ivy than the average elementary or secondary school, that’s by design, said architects Dan Wigodsky and Danny Derrick.
With its stately buildings ringing a secure, central courtyard where kids chat and toss a Frisbee, and synthetic-turf playing fields that can be fully lit at night, Cornerstone was built to resemble institutions of higher learning and their sense of importance as well as reflect the traditional values of the school and the classic education it offers.
“It really is a visual representation of what they are trying to instill in the program, so that consistency is extremely important,” said Derrick, a Corpus Christi native who earned his architecture degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, joined Wigodsky in the firm in 2005.
Wigodsky said he has known Cornerstone Senior Pastor John Hagee since Wigodksy was a boy and the pastor was his swim team coach. His first project with Hagee was the 5,000-seat Cornerstone Church at Stone Oak Parkway, built in 1987 to accommodate Hagee’s expanding church ministries, which he began in 1966.
Since the church was completed, the firm has served as the church’s architects, completing projects that include a black-box theater and office building adjacent the church, a Noah’s Ark children’s center, the Cornerstone Cares Community Center on Culebra Road, and the Sanctuary of Hope, a home for unwed mothers and pregnant teens in Bulverde.
“We like working for people who do good things,” Wigodsky said, adding that the firm is also doing pro bono work for the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio as that group searches for a new home.
Planning for the school project began four years ago while the school was still located at the former Ursuline Academy campus on Vance Jackson Road. Cornerstone purchased the 37 acres at the corner of Northwest Military Highway at Shavano Ranch for a school in 2015.
The architects went with three-story buildings spaced tightly together in order to accommodate a large school on a site of that size, which is comparable to a San Antonio public middle school site. Fewer foundations also meant less cost.
The configuration of the buildings also give it an urban campus feel on the edge of the Hill Country, Wigodsky said. Bartlett Cocke served as the general contractor.
After crews spent nearly six months leveling the site by clearing 340,000 cubic feet of dirt and rock later used as fill, the buildings began taking shape as Rudd & Adams Masonry workers laid all 900,000 red bricks for the five school buildings and a field house.
The manufactured bricks are made to look handmade by the way they are laid. The skilled masons also created masonry arches and keystones at the entrances without using steel. “It says you’re entering into something that’s real,” Wigodksy said.
Visitors enter the school at a front office furnished with a custom-designed reception desk and Old-World chandeliers, and a floor-to-ceiling painting of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Past that point and through a set of double doors with a Roman grille and rosette medallions is the Great Hall, a light-filled, three-story vestibule with a grand travertine stairway. The third floor of this administrative and classroom building has views of the nearby quarries. On the ceiling is a celestial scene framed in gold-look filigree.
There are dozens of masculine Greek Doric columns in this space and in the main areas of the school buildings. There are 335 in all. Classical Doric proportional systems are used in the proportions and placement of windows, cornice dimensions and molding systems, balustrade design at the roof, column design, portico details, and interior cornice and trim details.
At 142,000 square feet, the elementary school buildings were the first to be completed. Those buildings have 61 classrooms, large enough for 26 even though Cornerstone caps them at 17, for a lower student-to-teacher ratio, each one with a bathroom.
Then came the secondary schools, another 151,000 square feet, and 53 classrooms for middle- and high-school students. There are 1,400 students currently enrolled at Cornerstone.
Both schools have their own libraries, cafeterias, a black-box theater, and gymnasiums. The high school, in fact, has two gyms – serving varsity and junior varsity teams – all with wood floors and bleachers rather than the vinyl used in many school gyms today.
The basketball courts are full-size, even in the elementary school, to accommodate tournaments that generate funds for Cornerstone. There’s also a television monitor mounted on the wall that supports the weekly chapel services for the school.
A red-white-and-blue shield and sword emblem and the school’s Warriors team name and logo are plastered to walls and floors in the gyms and in many areas of the school, along with Bible verses and character traits such as discipline and faith.
A 25,000-square-foot building on the campus serves as the field house. Situated between the football and baseball/softball fields, it provides coaches offices, locker rooms, classrooms, and a weight room with top-of-the-line equipment. Cornerstone withdrew from the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools in August over concerns of aggressive recruiting, joined the Texas Christian Athletic League, but is reportedly now backing the startup Texas Trinity League.
At night, the fields at Cornerstone are illuminated with collegiate-level lighting that provides the necessary visibility without affecting the “dark sky” requirements of the neighboring Camp Bullis. Drop-off lanes and traffic routes within the campus are also designed to keep cars from backing up along Northwest Military and impeding the approach into the military training base up the road.
Parents drop their children off at a colonnade that Wigodsky said is like “an ode to UVA,” the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and its covered walkway is framed by a set of Roman Doric columns.
Beyond the school’s fields, on the east end of the campus, is land currently being used as youth sports fields. Plans, however, call for buildings that would house a performing arts program and a dormitory for students from outside the area or from the Sanctuary of Hope program.
The architectural style may be conservative and traditional, but the design also took into account a number of modern green building practices. There are more than 200 new trees planted on the site and an underground stormwater filter system captures runoff. The architects urged Cornerstone officials to invest in costly high-efficiency air-cooled chillers with frictionless magnetic bearings.
“These students are on the path to higher education, so we try to make the buildings reflect that – to keep their core values and the impact,” Wigodsky said. “They are going to universities, so they are used to that quality, that expectation, that education level.
“I just try to sort of soak it in sometimes,” he said. “It’s hard for me to look past some of the details at times and to just see it for what it is.”