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12/01/2011

Restoring a Legacy

Lord, Aeck & Sargent gives the Great Depression-era Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building in Atlanta a new lease on life by preserving its historic elements while creating a new, modern workplace for the GSA.

By Adam Moore

 
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    The two story postal lobby of the MLK Building was fully restored and includes the original monel postal tables with glass tops. View larger

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    The MLK Building in downtown Atlanta is considered one of the best examples of federal architecture from the Great Depression era. View larger

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    An iconic picture of Martin Luther King Jr. appears on a large 14 foot by 9 foot backlit wall just beyond a set of glass doors in the postal lobby of the building. View larger

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    This general office reception area features lounge chairs from Martin Brattrud, carpet from Tandus Flooring and ceiling tiles from Armstrong. View larger

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    Low partitions between workstations help light from the perimeter windows reach all areas of the office. View larger

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    Herman Miller Eames molded plastic chairs and tables fill the collaboration spaces created between the buildings original walls and the modern interiors requested by the GSA. View larger

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    Herman Miller Eames wire chairs and classic pendant lights from Cooper Lighting evoke the Civil Rights era in the buildings break area. View larger

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    One of four conference rooms located in each of the corners of the building on the first floor. Beyond is a breakout seating area. View larger

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    The design team left much of the ductwork exposed to emulate the buildings original aesthetic. View larger

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    A variety of Herman Miller chairs, including tablet arm chairs from the Celeste collection from the company, provide informal work spaces outside of the main workstations. View larger

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    An oversized backlit stamp image is used for wayfinding in one of the elevator,stair lobbies located on the first floor of the building. View larger

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building in downtown Atlanta is a remarkable piece of U.S. architectural history for a number of reasons. Originally designed by architect A. Ten Eyck Brown and built in 1933 as part of a federal public works program, the 78-year old building is considered one of the best examples of federal architecture from the Great Depression era.

It stood proudly as the Southeast’s central postal facility for nearly a half-century before being acquired by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in 1981. It became the first building in the U.S. to be named in honor of King in 1988, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

And yet, despite the building’s distinguished history, it had gained something of a reputation amongst federal workers in the city. Years of additions and modifications to the building’s structure and layout had turned it into a warren of dark, cramped spaces with little relation to each other. The building’s original two-story volumes had been split into low-ceilinged mezzanine floors; expansive windows and original brick wainscoting had been covered up to allow for drywall to be installed; and a two-story light well in the back of the building—previously responsible for bringing natural light into the basement and the ground floor above it—had been closed up to create storage space.

One can imagine, then, that enthusiasm was not high among GSA staffers hearing that the building would become the agency’s Southeast Sunbelt Region headquarters. Fortunately for them, an inspired partnership between the GSA and Atlanta-based architecture firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent has transformed the building from blighted to beautiful. Led by Susan Turner, a LA&S Historic Preservation Studio principal, the $62 million exterior restoration and interior rehabilitation/adaptive reuse project, carefully balanced the desire to retain the historic character of the building’s spaces with the need to provide workers with a modern, flexible environment.

“We wanted to change the perception of GSA employees who would be moving to the building from a nearby federal building,” says Mike Fifty, a GSA senior project manager who oversaw the MLK Building’s interior rehabilitation. “Quite frankly, none of them wanted to move here because the building was dark and unpleasant. No employees thought it was possible they’d ever come to love the space, but everybody is thrilled with this building, and there are no complaints.”

For David Ramsey, an interior designer in LA&S’ Historic Preservation Studio, a pivotal moment in the MLK Building’s new interior concept actually came during demolition of the building’s three lowest floors—a process that he equates to an “archeological dig.” As the mezzanine floors were removed, revealing expansive two-story spaces, and the drywall came down, exposing damaged but original plaster walls and wainscoting, it became apparent that the design needed to be reworked to fully showcase the building’s historic character.

“It was breathtaking to see,” Ramsey recalls. “We thought if it would be possible to return these spaces to their original states, it would be exactly what the building deserves, and it would be exactly what people would enjoy working in.”

The design team went back to the boards, and returned with a plan for the interiors that restored and preserved as much of the original construction as possible, while still providing the modern touches required by employees and the GSA’s own WorkPlace 20-20 design standard (which essentially formalizes many of the changes already going on in the design world, including more collaborative spaces, fewer corner offices and sharing of natural light).

As a result, the modern interiors were held back from the perimeter by 15 feet, allowing the walls and wainscoting to be repaired, and providing room for a variety of collaborative spaces. The historic steel window transoms and wall-mounted operators were also restored, and replicas of historic pendant lights, designed with help from Cooper Lighting, were hung from the exposed ceilings around the 15-foot perimeter zone.

Rows of Herman Miller Canvas Landscape workstations are lined up smartly in the middle of the floor plate. In an effort to provide GSA employees with a combination of natural light and privacy, the design team installed medium-height partitions around each workstation, providing workers with the maximum amount of privacy at the seated level; upon standing, workers can see out to the edge of the building. Sliding doors were also installed on each workstation to provide an increased sense of privacy. The workstation layout proved to be so efficient that the design team ended up with surplus space in the middle of the floor plate. That space was eventually used for additional glass-fronted teaming and private areas.

The primary interior wall color was painted in a neutral butter shade that matched the original color of the building, as determined through paint analysis, but the design team also updated the interior palette through the use of prominent accent colors, including brown, red, orange, green, blue and purple—all taken directly from vintage postal stamps discovered during real and online visits to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

“We knew it was a postal facility, and we thought, how can we work this into the space without overwhelming the true meaning of the memorial that the project is?” Ramsey says. “I went onto the Smithsonian Institution’s postal website, where you can see every stamp that the U.S. has created, and I started in 1925 and went to around 1935. We knew that all of those stamps would be going through the facility when it was built, and when I started reviewing them, I found about 20 [stamp] colors. They were all incredible and amazing—almost like 1960s pop colors.”

Those colors are sprinkled throughout the building, but make their biggest impact at the edges of the collaborative areas, where they are found in enlarged images of the stamps themselves. The graphics, displayed in custom glass panels by Skyline Design and Trainor Design, serve as attention-grabbing wayfinding markers. As an added touch, 12 mint condition historic stamps were randomly embedded in colored cement-based countertops manufactured with recycled glass bottles from local restaurants and bars and used in the space.

In an effort to pay homage not only to the facility’s postal history, but to the civil rights leader and the movement he inspired, the design team recommended that the GSA furnish the office with modern pieces that evoke designs created during the 1950s-1970s Civil Rights era. Geiger conference and lounge furnishings were chosen for the enclosed office spaces and larger conferencing areas, and several varieties of Eames-designed chairs can be seen mingling with lounge pieces from Martin Brattrud in the office’s open spaces.

The careful selection of furnishings was not the only way the design team and the GSA chose to honor King, however. The building’s historic two-story postal lobby—which also received a full restoration treatment, including the replication of the original lighting fixtures found in the lobby based on government drawings from that time period—provided the ideal venue for a large-scale portrait of King. Placed on a 14-foot by 9-foot backlit wall plane and located just beyond a set of glass doors at the backside of the postal lobby, the iconic image can be viewed by passersby walking in front of the building. In addition, 25 large black and white photographs of King with other well-known civil rights and prominent Atlanta leaders are located along a wall in a well-traveled first floor corridor.

And while the MLK Building’s interiors have been designed to honor its historic legacy, its sustainable attributes and targeted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification firmly position it for the future. Low flow faucets, showers and toilets with automatic sensors and waterless urinals reduce water consumption. Daylight responsive lighting controls are installed along the perimeter of the building, and occupancy sensors provide a sizable reduction in power requirements. Task lighting is also provided at individual workstations to offset larger quantities of general office lighting.

All of the architectural finishes and systems and office furniture contain the highest available percentages of recycled content, and all new paints, coatings and sealant products comply with VOC limits for new construction. Waste generated during construction was managed and/or recycled, and large quantities of new materials were manufactured or sourced within a 500-mile radius of Atlanta.

According to the GSA’s Fifty, the adaptive reuse of a historic post office into contemporary office space for the federal government “couldn’t have turned out better. It’s a beautiful place, and the mixture of new and old worlds doesn’t clash; it flows. It’s a modern, open floor plan, yet when you go to the bay area by the windows overlooking the terrace, you see old schoolhouse-style hanging lights. It gives a delightful old-time feel to a new space.”

 

CONTACT:
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client
Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building
77 Forsyth Street SW
Atlanta, GA 30303
www.gsa.gov

ARCHITECTure/INTERIOR DESIGN
Lord, Aeck & Sargent
1201 Peachtree Street NE
Suite 300
Atlanta, GA 30361
(877) 929-1400
www.lordaecksargent.com

CONSTRUCTION MANAGER
The Beck Group
www.beckgroup.com

LEED CONSULTANT /COMMISSIONING
Working Buildings
www.workingbuildings.com

PAINT CONSERVATIONISTS
Sara B. Chase

Welsh Color & Conservation
www.welshcolor.com

LIGHTING CONSULTANTS
CD+M Lighting Design Group
www.cdmlight.com

St. Louis Antique Lighting Company
www.slalco.com

ART CONSULTANT
Novus
www.novusartconsulting.com

ART GLASS CONSULTANT
JPI
www.jpiatlanta.com

INTERIOR SIGNAGE CONSULTANT
APCO Graphics
www.apcosigns.com

photography
Jonathan Hillyer / Atlanta

 

 

 
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