Island of Learning

Written by WBRC CEO Doug Whitney, AIA

Indian Island School, completed in 1986, was the first of many K-12 school projects over my career. Architects Mike Czarnecki and Alan Baldwin were the WBRC Principals-in-Charge for the project. Mike, Alan, and I worked together with a building committee to design this distinctive school, one that is still in service today.

Indian Island School is one of three Native American Schools which comprise the Maine Indian Education School System. (The other two schools are Indian Township in Princeton and Beatrice Rafferty School in Perry.)

Reflecting Tribal Values

The design goals for this Pre-K to Grade 8 school had a key objective: to honor and reflect the Penobscot Nation’s history and values. Tribal culture includes a deep connection to nature and respect for tribal history and traditions. Our team sought to reflect this in the school’s design while also creating a safe, nurturing environment for students.

A school is a central gathering place for any community, so the first task was to select the best possible location. As the site plan and aerial help show, the school was set right next to Indian Island’s Community Building and borders the Penobscot River.

Indian Island School Aerial
Aerial image of Indian Island School (taken in 2009)
Indian Island School Site Plan
Indian Island School site plan

The school is designed around a central courtyard, with the library at one end and the cafeteria and multi-purpose room behind that.

The design of the building incorporates traditional Penobscot art forms, such as brown ash basketry and birch bark containers and etchings. The exterior facade uses a basketweave pattern of the split face and split ribbed block based on Native American basketweave patterns.

Indian Island School Rendering

This project was one of the few I recall where we commissioned an outside rendering company to prepare a rendering of it.

Indian Island School Entrance
Detail of the school entrance.


Beam, Berming, and Basketweaving

The main entrance is recessed into one inside corner, leading to the library and entry lobby. There is a single glulam beam that extends the wall from the column over the front door all the way to the peak of the adjacent library. This required some very careful and precise calculations to get the dimensions and geometry just right. To assist with this, I built a small-scale wooden model of the roof framing for our use in the office to help visualize the roof framing structural design.

As you can see in the photos, we used an earth berming technique for added insulation and security around the building perimeter.

At about the time we were designing the building, Andersen Windows came out with its Flexiframe windows product. This allowed us to economically design a custom-angled frame for the exterior windows that complemented the pattern of the exterior masonry. The basketweave pattern symbolized earth elements of waves of water at the lower wall bands; mountains and clouds appear in the upper gable ends.

Indian Island School Exterior 2

The library/media center exterior wall serves as the focal point of the courtyard. The project budget and competitive contractor bids allowed us to add a custom-landscaped courtyard design. The courtyard is organized around an outdoor amphitheater for outdoor teaching with a stage for performances. I designed the courtyard and plantings using cast-in place concrete walls and seating. The courtyard was paved with decorative concrete pavers.

Indian Island School North-South Elevation

All of the drawings for this project were drawn by hand with plastic lead pencils on mylar sheets. The elevation drawings show the two types of concrete block we used create the finished patterns. The concrete block was then stained and sealed in two different colors to accentuate those patterns.

Indian Island School East-West Elevation Indian Island School Lobby

The entrance lobby has a view toward the peak of the roof inside the library. The floor of the lobby features a mosaic floor tile with the seal of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

The final school is 35,850 SF and was designed for a 250-student capacity. It included 10 classrooms, an art/shop classroom, cafeteria, library, gymnasium, and a multi-purpose room.


Two Last Vintage Photos

These photos of Mike Czarnecki and Alan Baldwin reflect a time when paper and drafting tables ruled the day — and all of us had more hair.

Alan T. Baldwin, WBRC principal 1972-1990
Alan T. Baldwin, WBRC principal 1972-1990
Michael L. Czarnecki, WBRC principal 1981-2008
Michael L. Czarnecki, WBRC principal 1981-2008