For five decades, the instruction at St. Joseph High School has been state-of-the-art even as the school itself retained a 1950s feel. Recently, though, that changed with the dedication of the 20,000-square-foot Robert & Maureen O'Keefe Academic Center, which the school recently completed. The $4.5-million project was completed in 16 months and without incurring any debt.

"Less than a year and a half ago, we stood with shovels in hand, as the now archbishop of Baltimore, William E. Lori, broke the turf on this new center," said Principal William Fitzgerald. "Today, with our new technology in hand, we throw open new windows on the world of global learning."

The curved two-story structure's dominant feature is a glass tower that sweeps along the front of the building, ending at the school's chapel.

School communications director Jennifer Deenihan said the subtle touches in the architecture represented the spirit of the school.

"There is no one thing here that says, 'Look at us, we're a Catholic high school,'" she said. "Rather, the spirit and mission of the school are carried through the entire building."

For example, fitting the school's Catholic mission, the front of the academic center includes a cross blended so subtly into the window frames as to escape casual notice. At night the cross is back-lit, visible only in its absence of light against the school's windows.

The academic center includes a new media center, courtyards, art studios, conference rooms, a 250-seat auditorium, and a coffee shop where students can get a cup of "Joe." The most visible feature, though, is the two-story main entrance with the school's motto, "Privilege and Responsibility" emblazoned on the wall. The entry foyer also includes a piano, where impromptu concerts have become a regular occurrence.

"Almost every day you walk by and someone's playing," Deenihan said. "And it's usually someone you don't expect, who you never even expected knew how to play."