Building Community and Schools with History

B.M.C. Durfee High School
Fall River, MA


The challenge

The Fall River School District needed to replace a failing 1978 building that serves a very large high school population (2,570 students). The goal of the new building was not only to develop creative and inspiring spaces that support comprehensive educational offerings, but also to reflect and embed the history of B.M.C. Durfee and Fall River in the building design. 

Kennedy MS 7
B.M.C. Durfee HS 1

The original and historic B.M.C. Durfee High School was built in 1887 as one of the first comprehensive public high schools in the country and now serves as a courthouse. The original school’s historic 1887 Warner and Swasey telescope and iconic Durfee bells and tower were incredible symbols of Fall River’s past as an industrial powerhouse – a past that includes pioneering cutting-edge industrial technology and more than 200 textile mills in operation at the turn of the century.

The solution

The new building exterior reflects the historic 1887 building. As in the original, the new building includes two towers – one for the iconic bells and the second to house an observatory that features the 1887 historic Warner & Swasey telescope from the original building. The bell tower integrates the historic Durfee bells and a carillon, which is a set of 23 chromatically tuned bells that are played using a clavier, a stringed keyboard located below the belfry. The Durfee High School’s manually played carillon is the only one at a public high school in North America.

Kennedy MS 7

The historical references continue throughout the interior. The three-story atrium at the core of the academic wing incorporates wood subflooring and iron stair treads beneath steel bridges at each floor level – material reclaimed from the original King Phillip cotton mill. Wood beams and subflooring from the same mill are also repurposed in the student-run culinary program restaurant, The Granite Grille. Strategically located multi-story graphic walls depict key moments in Fall River’s history, providing students and visitors additional opportunities to learn from and understand the city’s past.


The new B.M.C. Durfee High School is a thriving 21st Century learning environment and a monument to the city’s rich history. For students and teachers, it is a fully functioning school within an inspiring museum. For the Ai3 team, the project was an exercise in mega-scale planning to accommodate a historic telescope, bell tower, observatory, renovated natatorium, historic elements, and the coordination of vocation-based, community, and local businesses that support the educational programs.