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

honor the legacy
The joy and aim of projects like these is to combine new purpose with historic meaning. Saving as much as possible of the structure’s historic appearance is the most important part of salvaging its purpose and restoring its meaning to the community as the building itself is restored. An untrained eye can detect subtle modernizations and alterations to lines and forms, especially if the viewer attaches special significance to the building.

Windows are a good example: residential reuse will require energy-efficient fenestration, but vinyl frames or reflective coatings will be jarring. Likewise, the design team must be careful when specifying rooftop HVAC equipment that does not noticeably alter the roof lines.

Boott Mills presented both of these challenges. The team met these by restoring existing wood window frames or replacing them with historically appropriate products, and by specifying low-profile equipment that could be positioned strategically on the rooftop to have minimal impact on the familiar roofline.

Then there are the less subtle aspects, which require significant attention. At Boott Mills, this meant restoring the brick masonry, especially that of the iconic smokestack. Though it will never again issue smoke (thank goodness), it is a focal point for the community—perhaps the defining feature of the skyline—visible from every direction. No less significant is the campus’s clock tower, which had to be entirely removed during major structural repairs to its walls and afterward craned back into place.

Project teams should also consider possible restoration of the space for use by the community at large, as well as by new occupants. In Albany, N.Y., The Architectural Team is working with WinnDevelopment on adapting the former Philips Livingston Magnet Academy into a mixed-income senior living community with a total of 103 one- and two-bedroom studio apartments. The landmark school features a two-story library converted into multi-purpose meeting spaces, and an auditorium currently mothballed, but scheduled for similar adaptation during a future phase. These spaces will be publicly available to the surrounding residential community, as well as to the senior residents of the preserved building, restoring that aspect of the structure’s legacy.

attention to detail
The NPS takes an active role even when they are not located onsite, offering a number of important resources. In addition to providing a portfolio of requirements for HTC compliance, the NPS typically keeps comprehensive archives on its listed landmarks, including images, which are invaluable for successful historic preservation.

But the designer on a historic/adaptive reuse project should not be satisfied even with NPS’s thorough set of requirements. To preserve the legacy as fully as possible should be the overarching goal, and that means no detail is too small to be dismissed. Rather, each detail should be seen as an opportunity.

This is particularly true of interiors, for which there are fewer requirements. Residents of a loft in a historic mill may not need to feel connected to the history while at home, but offering this connection deepens the ties to the structure for new generations.

While the focus here has been on adapting to residential use, many opportunities abound for commercial spaces and other uses. The Architectural Team’s portfolio includes derelict landmarks that have been adapted for hotels (from a former Boston police headquarters), a research laboratory, a drug-treatment center, artist live/work spaces, retail, mixed-use, and more. In each case, our firm sought to embrace the architectural heritage and preserve the historic legacy while successfully adapting the structure to meet the client’s vision. We can say proudly that in many cases, our efforts assisted a struggling community to retain an important piece of its collective identity.

Preserving a legacy in this way does more than merely safeguard the past. It can strengthen the promise of the future.


Robert Verrier, FAIA, NCARB, is a partner at The Architectural Team, Inc., a 60-person master planning and architectural firm specializing in mixed-use, hospitality, multi-family housing, and historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

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