City in the Sky

By Jim Truitt, Forest City Residential GroupFor a slideshow of images go to Mercantile PlaceHistoric preservation can revitalize a community’s economy and renew its downtown core, while preserving the social and cultural character of an area. Although adaptive reuse has its challenges—preserving and restoring artifacts, optimizing apartment space while maintaining the building’s structure and historic…

By Jim Truitt, Forest City Residential GroupFor a slideshow of images go to Mercantile PlaceHistoric preservation can revitalize a community’s economy and renew its downtown core, while preserving the social and cultural character of an area. Although adaptive reuse has its challenges—preserving and restoring artifacts, optimizing apartment space while maintaining the building’s structure and historic character, and reconfiguring the interiors within the building’s structural confines—many local governments and developers are committed to improving and reusing older, architecturally significant buildings that reflect a community’s legacy.Built in 1942, the 31-story Mercantile National Bank Building in downtown Dallas is a perfect example of this trend. An icon for more than 65 years, the once-majestic bank building—the “City in the Sky” as it was called—sat proud but vacant from 1993 until June 2005, when Forest City Residential Group, a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises Inc., purchased it from the City of Dallas. Forest City saw the potential of refurbishing the Mercantile due to its iconic stature in downtown Dallas, and that it would be a key component in the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Dallas. Soon after the purchase, Forest City and the City of Dallas—with unanimous city council approval—entered into a redevelopment agreement to revitalize the iconic bank building and the adjacent area as part of a $250 million redevelopment project called Mercantile Place. Dallas provided assistance to Forest City to revitalize the blighted area in the form of public incentives, including tax abatements and $58 million in tax increment financing (TIF). Construction financing was provided by Bank of America, LaSalle Bank and Wachovia.Located strategically across from the internationally renowned Neiman Marcus flagship store, the redevelopment project also includes The Element, a new 15-story, 153-unit apartment building that was completed in January 2009. The historic Wilson Building, an adaptive reuse project that was purchased by Forest City after the acquisition of the Mercantile Block, is directly across Main Street. (Post Properties converted the former department store and offices into 135 apartments in the 1990s, before selling the project to Forest City in 2008.) The transformation of the area is a testament to both the importance of historic preservation and the value of public/private partnerships in downtown revitalization. When completed, Mercantile Place will encompass 1.1 million square feet, including the Mercantile Bank Building and The Element. Transforming a landmarkExtensive due diligence was fundamental to Forest City’s planning effort to ensure the preservation of the Mercantile Bank Building, recognized as a valuable historic structure with the potential for a much longer and useful life. To maintain the historical essence and structural identity of the bank building, the Forest City development team and the project architect, Beeler Guest Owens Architects, Inc. of Dallas, worked closely with the city’s historical resources board to preserve the building’s exterior character, including its historic façade and its key structural and design elements. Once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, the $1.8 million (1942 dollars) limestone and brick Mercantile Bank Building—known locally as The Merc—was designed by famed New York architect Walter Ahlschlager, who created Manhattan’s landmark Roxy Theater and the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. The design of the skyscraper (this month’s cover image) features Moderne styling from the Art Deco era, including a number of setbacks that are crowned by a large neon clock.An essential requirement of the preservation process was that the historic edifice be faithfully restored to its 1942 design intent; however, the building’s existing interior spaces had to be completely demolished and rebuilt as luxury apartments while continuing to pay homage to the 1940s era. Boston-based DiMella Shaffer Architects preserved many of the original interior features, artifacts and artwork while reconfiguring the former office.A downtown symbol for more than 66 years, the clock, which has a 28-foot, eight-inch clock face on all four sides of the tower, was a key element of the exterior renovation. Updated and repainted with the original light bronze color, the massive clock is once again telling time. The clock hands and hour indications have been restored and relit with energy saving, light-emitting diode (LED) “lensed” fixtures. The hands on the clock faces are illuminated red and the hours are a warm white color that closely resembles the original neon lighting.The weather spire is also once again operational. It was designed and installed by J.F. Zimmerman & Sons in 1958 and kept residents informed of the local forecast. The “new” weather spire maintains the stately appearance of the original spire but is also state-of-the-art with LED fixtures programmed to provide the weather forecast. Inside the Mercantile Bank Building, elevator lobbies in the remodeled bank tower are decorated with vintage photos of the Mercantile building, and construction workers saved marble and stained wood panels in the hallways for reuse. The Merc’s once elegant, two-story bank lobby with its polished stone, artwork, and wood walls is being refurbished as grand retail space. The building’s lobby reflects such notable Moderne interiors as the GE and RCA buildings in New York City, with similar marquee designs and terrazzo floor patterns.While ample research and numerous black-and-white photos provided suitable inspiration for the design of the building’s interiors, the intent is nevertheless new and fresh with a hip and sophisticated allure. The designers embraced the notion of a “machine for living,” which was a popular mantra of the Moderne era. The new residential kitchens and baths followed a sleek, machine-like aesthetic, with exposed stainless steel cladding on the casework and white glossy finishes. The upper-floor public spaces recall the marquee design of the first-floor lobby and employ seamless vinyl, another popular material of the Moderne era, for flooring in the elevator lobbies.The successful melding of historic preservation and adaptive reuse as reflected in the Mercantile Bank Building is a finely tuned give-and-take that attempts to preserve as much of a structure’s historic significance as possible, while finding a new use—or maintaining the existing use—that fits within the context of the surrounding community. Along with new urban residents, Mercantile Place is expected to attract new office and retail tenants, and it is viewed as a landmark project that will help to revitalize the core area of downtown Dallas. Fact BoxMercantile Place (Merc and Element):Residential units: 366 Total square footage: 551,019Square footage residential, commercial: 12,000Date completed: January 2009Percentage leased: 60Developer: Forest City ResidentialArchitect: DiMella Shaffer Architects, Beeler Guest OwnesInterior designer: DiMella ShafferJim Truitt is the Texas regional partner for Forest City Residential Group, developers of Mercantile Place and other notable historic/adaptive reuse communities around the nation.

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