In what was once a high school in the downtown area of Paris, IL for longer than anyone can remember, Tiger Senior Apartments are now home to many of the town’s older residents.

WJW Architects was drawn to the project’s potential both as adaptive reuse and historic preservation, according to WJW Principal Heidi Wang, AIA, LEED AP, EDAC. The project was funded mostly through the  low-income housing tax credit and federal and state historic preservation tax credit funding programs.

Older schools lend themselves well to adaptive re-use, the architect said, because a typical classroom is roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment.

With graceful historic details, high ceilings, large windows and ample common areas in the form of the gymnasium and auditorium, the building offered inherent possibilities for housing design, the company said in a press release.

Wang said affordability is a unique aspect of adaptive re-use projects. For new construction, it would be next to impossible to get an affordable piece of land right in the center of town, Wang said.

“We’d be looking at edge-of-the-center sites and around the boundaries of the city, and in this case, they can walk to the library, they can walk to a restaurant, they can walk to a doctor’s office. They’re really close to everything,” Wang said.

Paris, IL operated the high school continuously from the early 1900s until 2019, when a new school was built on another site. The school district donated the land and the building to Illinois-based Laborers’ Home Development Corporation, which owns and operates affordable housing throughout the state. 

“The town really didn’t want to see the school demolished. They also didn’t really have the money to do anything else with it. It was a really good fit from that standpoint,” Wang said.

The senior housing complex has 42 units, plus a gym and auditorium that were original to the building. Wang said the company removed some additions and changes to the original building that occurred over time and focused on taking the building “back to the original build-out” of a historic building. Additionally, contractors replaced windows with ones that matched the historic figuration of the windows.

“Because we were using historic tax credits we had to keep all of the contact elements on the outside of the building,” Wang said.

One challenge was making the building accessible under Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, as the old building didn’t have an elevator, but rather a grand entrance at the entrance. All of the units are Fair Housing accessible, and 12% of the units are fully accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Sustainability was a big goal of the project, Wang said.

“We were able to score a silver certification through NGBS [National Green Building Standard]. It’s all electric, and we have heard rave reviews about low energy bills.Most of these residents say it’s the lowest energy bills they’ve ever had in their lifetime,” she said. 

Tiger Senior Apartments is at around 90% occupancy, Wang said, and more than half of its residents are former students or teachers of the high school.  Wang said she’s heard many anecdotal stories about how residents chose their particular unit.

“Things like ‘this is where I met your mother’ or ‘this is where I had my favorite teacher in history class,’” she added. “It just can’t be compared.

Tiger Senior Apartments is becoming a community treasure. The apartment complex   hosted the town’s annual festival of Christmas trees a couple weeks ago in the school’s old gymnasium. The auditorium will likely be used for community events as well.

Wang said she previously worked on a similar project in Iowa, and the firm has quite a few adaptive re-use projects in the pipeline.