Designing to Preserve a Legacy

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects breathe new life not only into old buildings, but the communities they serve.

by Robert J. Verrier, FAIA, NCARB

identify the opportunity
Investigating the proposed site and its structural condition is crucial, naturally. Rot, decay, and aging foundations can create significant challenges for a design team.

But perhaps more importantly, the proposed reuse must fit the building. The structure is like a glove, and it needs the proper “hand” to wear it. A landmark’s existing components will determine what uses are possible. For instance, the number of windows will rigidly define the number of units a residential reuse may include. Mills and factories—being many-windowed by design—are frequently ripe for reuse as multi-family, senior, commercial, or artist live/work residential projects.

Shuttered schools, typically vacated because they are no longer large enough to serve expanding student populations, also typically have plenty of windows. In Worcester, Mass., The Architectural Team and WinnDevelopment are currently converting The Voke (short for Worcester Vocational High School) into residential lofts. Dating back to 1909, The Voke occupied a “gateway” site at a prominent entryway to the city, making it iconic to visitors as well as residents.

In 1955, the U-shaped Voke building was infilled with a gymnasium addition, crowding the small campus and leaving the site footprint with limited expansion possibilities. Once closed, it began to lay fallow, and the site became known for squatters, vandalism, and other signs of urban decay. Instead of providing a gateway into the city, The Voke became a visual barrier to Worcester—both symbolic of decay and literally decadent. The design team demolished the infill addition and restored the original U-shaped plan so conducive to its new residential reuse.

Another example of successful adaptive reuse strategies at work is Boott Mills East and West, a textile mill campus at the heart of Lowell, Mass., centrally located and set on the Merrimack River—a site ideal for mixed-use redevelopment. Though in need of major structural work, Boott had already been designated with landmark status. In fact, the NPS already occupied the site, dedicating some small square footage to a museum depicting the city’s various contributions to both the labor movement and women’s rights. (Look up the “Lowell Mill Girls” for some background on this fascinating history.)

Over the span of several project phases at Boott, The Architectural Team found solutions for masonry damaged by lightning strikes, timbers infested with wood-eating microorganisms, and first-floor levels built 11 inches below the 100-year flood plain, while carefully restoring the iconic windows, clock tower, and smokestack. The campus will ultimately yield 271 total residential units and 40,000 square feet of commercial and/or artist space, entirely in harmony with the existing museum and bringing new life to a downtown that was badly hurt by the mill closing decades ago.

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