Creativity Rules in Adaptive Reuse

Columnist Lew Sichelman on the future of unused buildings.

Lew Sichelman

Lew Sichelman

A warehouse known as the Big Box Store of its day. A hospital reputed to have spectral residents. A giant department store that once rivaled Macy’s. An ancient courthouse. A factory that was once an assembly line for automobiles. A gold processing plant now catering to the golden years of seniors.

What do these old, unused buildings have in common? They are all now, or will soon be, multifamily housing, sterling examples of the creativity developers are bringing to adaptive reuses.

Considering that many of these are Historic Tax Credit deals, the requirements of the National Park Service or State Historic Preservation Offices to keep historic details in place mean that some of the new renters have very unusual apartments, indeed.

The NPS, which administers the federal Historic Tax Credit program, wanted courtrooms preserved at the old Worcester Courthouse in Worcester, Mass., so one fortunate resident’s apartment is a whole courtroom, including preserved wall and ceiling finishes. The resident has a judge’s bench, stenographer’s space and two raised spots where juries sat—but no jury box.

Actually, all 118 residents at the Courthouse Lofts benefit from the large amounts of space extant in the four old court buildings. For instance, a resident’s lounge is two stories high to match the original architecture. In another unique touch, the project houses its museum, dedicated to Marshall “Major” Taylor, a bicycle champion from the 19th century known as the “Worcester Whirlwind.”

Innovative adaptive reuse cases

According to local legends, the Copley Memorial Hospital in Aurora, Ill., had residents even before developers decided to turn the place into apartments. The residents—spirits, allegedly—never paid rent and could be quite noisy.

It isn’t quite possible to make a cause-and-effect case that those who abandoned the hospital were thoroughly spooked, but workmen starting to turn the old hospital into 152 apartments did find that an expensive piece of imaging equipment had been left behind.

Renters living in the transformed hospital now apparently aren’t feeling spectral presences. The spooks are said to have been spooked themselves by all of the noise and dust of construction and have moved on to quieter places to haunt.

A development in the works in Attleboro, Mass., gives an ironic twist to residents living out their golden years. That’s because Gardner Terrace I Apartments, catering to seniors, occupies a building that once actually processed gold.

Attleboro used to be quite the jewelry hub, dating back to the arrival of a legendary “Frenchman” (possibly a French Huguenot) during the 18th century. The old Makepeace Co. building in Attleboro, dating to the 1800s, had its share of gold destined to be used in jewelry come through its factory.

In fact, not once but twice, subsequent owners have torn up the floors looking for embedded gold dust they could recycle. The most recent gold rush turned up dust valued in the six figures.

The Sibley Building in Rochester, N.Y., is a former gigantic department store that rivaled Macy’s in size at more than one million square feet. Its ongoing metamorphosis is changing the old retail workhorse into an “Everything Building” because—well—it has everything but the kitchen sink. Scratch that, it does have a kitchen sink, in a “demonstration” kitchen planned for the space.

The Sibley has four different kinds of multifamily housing—workforce, affordable, market-rate and senior —totaling hundreds of units. Those folks aren’t going to have to go far to get a lot of the things they need. There is retail space, a grocery store, market/food space inspired by the historic Fanueil Hall in Boston (kitchen sinks included) and even room for a college facility.

To fit all these uses under one roof, creative lawyers had to construct ten “condominium” structures. They had a bit of good karma befall them, though. It turns out part of the Sibley is on land formerly owned by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a much better past than, say, a project built over an old burial ground.

Detroit has more than its share of abandoned factory buildings. In fact, it has so many that people who like that sort of thing come to the Motor City on tours of ruined buildings. However, scratch one of those old structures off the list.

The Fisher 21 auto plant, which did body and chassis work for General Motors back in the day, is set to be converted into 433 apartments and thousands of square feet of retail space. It had been empty for so long that there was some question as to whether or not it should have been torn down. Eventually the city gave the go-ahead on the adaptive reuse and the building proved sturdy enough for the rehab.

The large ex-factory will have a two-acre roof full of amenities and, faithful to its automotive past, 130 enclosed parking spaces.

The giant Butler Brothers warehouse in St. Louis was like the IKEA or Amazon of its 19th and 20th century days, fulfilling orders for retailers like Ben Franklin Stores. Close to the major St. Louis Train station, it was known for speedy shipping and also for an IKEA-like demonstration space on its lower floors where customers could place immediate orders.

There were no Swedish meatballs to be had there, unfortunately. But what will be there soon are 384 apartments in a rebuilt city downtown facility with a new soccer stadium next door.

My associate Mark Fogarty provided writing and reporting for this article.

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